The Assault on Truth: Real Life Situations (RLS)Observations

“It is tempting to explain the plurality of good answers to knowledge questions in terms of a type of truth relativism: “it is just a matter of perspective”. A more likely explanation is that different interpretations of key ideas account for the different conclusions or that the weighting of different factors in the argument differ.”–TOK Guide, 2015

Real Life Situation

In the politics of the USA under the governance of the Trump regime (and its latest machinations since its arrival in 2016)  one sees what appears to be and may be called an “assault on truth”; it is the politics of the gutter. Many of those who wish to retain power demonstrate an “intentional ignorance” with regard to the shenanigans that America is engaged in domestically and in its foreign policy abroad. This assault on truth is not a modern phenomenon nor simply a Western one, nor is it simply an American phenomenon. It is not merely the comportments and posings of human beings who are seen to be on the ‘left’ or on the ‘right’. And again, this assault is not merely shown in the promotion of falsehoods which may defy common sense. Rather it is an indication of what happens, and what is happening to, human being-in-the-world as the technological society totters towards its apogee.

In the West, the assault on truth has been present in our “shared knowledge” (History) since the time of Socrates’ life and death struggle with the Sophists and the poets. In that struggle Socrates lost and was put to death. The current assault on truth is grounded in, and finds its origins in, what has come to be interpreted as truth and its understanding as well as its relation to knowledge and common sense or “practical reason” (applied reason). The separation of theory and practice began with Aristotle when he asserted that the highest life was the bios theoretikos, the life of the philosopher as he understood it, and the theoretical life proposed by Aristotle made the philosopher the “umpire” who decided the many political interests that different groups within the community propounded. The philosopher was the superior statesman and this led to the many denigrations of the philosophical life as that of “living in an ivory tower”.

This current assault illustrates how the theoretical and the practical, the theory and practice, pure reason and practical reason, the ethics (freedom) as actions are interwoven and interconnected. When one reads many of the “perspectivists” views of truth (and our quote from the TOK Guide illustrates the confusion that currently prevails with regard to “truth”), one sees in them a misunderstanding of the writings of the German philosopher Nietzsche (among the best of them) or some of the flimsy interpretations of truth, knowledge and “reality” among the pragmatists that currently dominate the academia and the powerful of our societies. As Nietzsche demonstrated and predicted, positivism will inevitably devolve into nihilism.

This writing will attempt to explore what can be called the phenomenon of this assault on truth, its possible causes and its implications. It will begin with brief summaries of the historical background of  the predominant theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatic) and attempt an analysis of why truth is now under assault both in the world of academia and in the societies of which we are members; that is, it will glance at our theory and practice, our ethics and our politics, and illustrate the inadequacies of the common views of truth which are most prevalent today. To do so, it will make statements regarding what the essence of truth is and in doing so must necessarily make statements of what we conceive the essence of knowledge to be.

Historical Background and Key Concepts

Key Concepts: Truth as aletheia (unhiddenness, unconcealment), correspondence theory of truth, coherence theory of truth, pragmatic theory of truth, freedom

TOK Personal and shared knowledge

Truth as Aletheia (Uncoveredness, unhiddenness):

For the ancient Greeks such as Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato truth was aletheia, an “unveiling”, or an “uncoveredness”, and “unhiddenness” that reveals some thing and gives us our knowledge of what that some thing is by showing us what that some thing is in its presence before us. It rested primarily on sense perception as a way of knowing. “Throwing light” on something prevails in all theories of truth from the time of the ancient Greeks to the quotation above from the TOK guide: the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories of truth all retain a grounding in truth as an unveiling, a revealing and a lighting up of some kind which provides “enlightenment” for human beings. It is the varying degrees of this “lighting up” that has led to the “perspectival” views expressed by many today. This “lighting up” comes about through what we have called our ways of knowing. It is through our ways of knowing that we experience what we call “truth”, our “freedom”, and the essence of what it means to be a human being or what it is about us as human beings that distinguishes us from all other living beings. Truth, knowledge and freedom are inextricably linked.

“Truth” has always been associated with “light”, not in a metaphorical or abstract sense but in a literal sense. It might be compared to those times when you switch on the light the moment you enter your hotel room when you are travelling and what was in darkness is then revealed to you. You will notice that there is no abstraction in this example: it is simply one of our experiences of the world we live in. We know what a hotel room is and should be in advance and we have expectations about it prior to the revealing of it.

This hotel room example illustrates “truth” as an ontological state, how the world about us is revealed to us in our living in it through our ways of knowing and, in the revealing, becomes what we have called our knowledge of our world. This ontology, this being-in-the-world, is coupled with our “metaphysics”, what we think the things are or should be that are ready-to-hand for us in our experiences of our world. The “revealing” creates our mood: we will either be pleased with our hotel room or we will not. We are pleased with the world in which we dwell or we are not. It need not be the best of all possible hotel rooms, an ideal hotel room, but whether or not it meets our needs will determine how we will evaluate it when we logon to Trip Adviser.

How we “feel” about the world around us is given to us in our experiences of that world, but our experience of the world is prior to our feeling response to it. That is, emotion as a way of knowing the world is posterior to our experience of the world as it is illuminated for us. After the initial revealing, what we believe is revealed will determine our mood towards it. To use a musical analogy, we may view our world in A Major or C Minor and this determines our “attunement” towards it; our experiences of the world will be determined by the need for harmony within the “key” that we have come to view the world. The point of the hotel room example is to show that truth as aletheia is not confined to our explicit assertions or propositions regarding things nor to our discrete mental, primarily theoretical, attitudes such as judgements, beliefs and representations that we arrive at through our ways of knowing. The world as a whole, not just entities within it, is unhidden – unhidden as much by our moods as by our ways of knowing and understanding. Truth is primarily a feature of reality – beings, being and world – not of our thoughts and utterances. Truth is not a human creation or construct; it is given to us and our partaking in it is part of our human nature. Truth itself is not related to “perspectivism” as it is commonly understood for “perspectivism” sees us as the center of this world which is contrary to our knowledge from our sciences and our.religions.

Truth as understood by the Greeks also relates to a human being as one “who does not hide or forget”. It is a person of candor 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. Truth is a product of our world; and falsehood is the product of human being in the world. The world does not lie; it hides.

The best example that we have in English of “truth as light” and how it affects human behaviour when truth is not so  is Shakespeare’s  Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth says of her husband that “he is too full of the milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way”, she is saying something about truth and its relation to what human beings are. She recognizes that to achieve the kingship, Macbeth will have to cease to be human in some essential manner; he must cease to be himself. He must become “unnatural” in order to carry out the act of murder i.e. he must become something less than human; and so she prays to the spirits of darkness to make her unnatural so that she may “pour her spirits” into Macbeth’s ear so that he will be capable of hearing what she believes must be done i.e. she must “poison” his mind and soul. Lady Macbeth recognizes that her husband is “not without ambition/ But without the illness should attend it”. She needs to make him “ill” if he is going to carry out the murder. We have a saying in English that when we are ill we “are not ourselves today” meaning that we are less than what we usually are as a human being.

The deterioration in Macbeth’s humanity is shown in his initial soliloquy entitled “If it t’were done when ’tis done…”. Macbeth is unable to bring the word “murder” to speech, to consciousness, to light and so he uses the pronoun “it” to refer to the killing of King Duncan. Shakespeare, through Macbeth, introduces a new word into the English language, “assassination”, because Macbeth himself is unable to say what the thing is that he is about to do: “murder”. The word is embedded in the lines: “If the assassination/  Could trammel up the consequence/ And catch with his surcease success…” The lines contain sibilance, that “hissing” sound, to indicate that what is being said is evil; that is the truth and reality of what Macbeth does not want to see. Macbeth will not allow the thing which he is about to do to come to light for what it is. He will, if you like, remain “intentionally ignorant” of what the thing is or deny the light as light. For Shakespeare, good and evil are not constructs of the human mind–they are not “values” that human beings will and create in their actions. They are truth and they are essential to our being as human beings. The root of all sin is the sin against the light or not recognizing the light as light. The denial of truth destroys something essential to our humanity.

Macbeth’s tragedy is not due to his ambition and the “illness” that he must receive in order to act in a way that will achieve that ambition, but to his lack of self-knowledge: he does not know who he is; and this lack of self-knowledge is a feature of all tragic heroes. He lacks that most essential light for knowing who he really, truly is. He is a great soldier, courageous and brave, the saviour of his country; but he is not a king for he does not have the qualities that make for a king; he has the qualities that make for a great soldier. Under Macbeth’s rule, Scotland becomes a tyranny and Macbeth himself becomes a monster and both the man and the country are destroyed and must be renewed at the end of the play. It would appear that lack of self-knowledge for human beings causes them to create wastelands, the nihil. Macbeth’s soliloquy :” Out, out, brief candle./ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth’s judgement of life is that of a man who has violated the principles of life; it is not Shakespeare’s judgement of life. It is the judgement of a man who has lost his humanity because he has chosen darkness and obfuscation rather than the light. The root of all sin is the sin against the light or not recognizing the light as light.

Motifs of light and dark, fair and foul, appearance and semblance, illness and health run throughout the play and reinforce its central theme regarding truth and its relation to human beings and their actions. Lady Macbeth’s prayer to be made “unnatural” may be said to be the opposite of Socrates’ prayer at the end of the dialogue Phaedrus which runs: “Dear Pan, and all you other gods who live here, grant that I may become beautiful within, and that whatever outward things I have may be in harmony with the spirit inside me. May I understand that it is only the wise who are rich, and may I have only as much money as a temperate person needs. — Is there anything else that we can ask for, Phaedrus? For me, that prayer is enough.” Socrates’ prayer for the unity and harmony of the inner and outer being of human being and world indicates that what is “natural” is something that human beings must strive for, and that “striving for” is not an easy journey.

The adherence to truth as a “lighting up” can still be seen in the quote from the TOK Guide above where the “unveiling” is to be found in the conclusions and the “factors” and their “weighting” that have been brought forward from the propositions asserted regarding our knowledge of some thing. What we call “knowledge” is inextricably linked to what we call truth and what we believe the truth to be.  The “factors” and their “weighting” (the evidence and its “value”) are arrived at through how much they illuminate the thing that is under examination and discussion. When we “evaluate” performances, whether they be essays or oral presentations, we do so in the understanding of how much they illuminate the object or thing that is under discussion. A norm or standard has been pre-established and we illustrate this norm through exemplars and reward our A’s and E’s accordingly.

The Correspondence and Coherence Theories of Truth

Historical Background

“Truth as correspondence” and “truth as coherence” find their origins in the thinking of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. They are what is understood as the logos. Following Aristotle, these concepts of truth have had three historical phases: 1. their origins in Aristotle; 2. their interpretation by the Latins and the early, medieval Christians; 3. their interpretations by the moderns beginning with Descartes and followed through in the writings of Leibniz and Kant which culminated in the distinction and separation of “subject” and “object”, what could be said to be the opposite direction from that indicated in Socrates’ prayer. Some brief words on these three stages will be mentioned shortly. In examining the historical backgrounds of our accounts of truth, we need to look at how the three phases of what is called truth came about.

First, truth has been considered historically as the “actual” or “the real”, “reality” or what we now call the world of “facts”. We distinguish “true gold” from “false gold”, for instance: “false gold” is not actual; it is a “semblance” of “real” gold. But “false gold”, too, is something actual, something real. Genuine gold is, then, that actual gold the actuality of which accords with what, always and in advance, we “properly” mean by “gold.” Hence, what is in “accord” is what is “as it should be”; in the play Macbeth illness is what is not in accord. Notice that there is no distinction between “fact” and “value” here. We call “true” our statements about the things when the statement is in accord with the matter about which the statement is made. We call this a “true proposition”. Accordingly, the correspondence of a matter with what is supposed in advance regarding it (such as “genuine gold”) and, on the other hand, the accordance of what is meant in the statement with the matter is what has been considered the true historically . (See the connection with the hotel example above.)

The greatest difference between Aristotle’s accounts of truth as correspondence and coherence and the Latin/Medieval accounts is that Aristotle viewed Nature as a permanent thing: for Aristotle, Nature always was and always will be; it is sempiternal. Nature is One and is whole. With the arrival of Christianity, the Latin/Medieval account of Nature sees it as a created thing; rocks and living organisms are things that have been created by God at some point in time. For both Aristotle and the Latins, the effort of thought was to have the mind give an account of the thing where the thing “corresponded” or was in accord with the image or representation, the idea, that was conceived in the mind. An idea or proposition would be true when it correctly refers to what is or what is conceived as reality. The emphasis is on the correctness of the account.

The Christian theological belief of the Medieval period, regarding what is actual and whether it is actual, considered a matter/thing as created,  and that the matter or thing is only insofar as it corresponds to the idea preconceived in the mind of God and thus measured up to this ideal (is “correct”) and in this sense is “true”. The human intellect too as a created thing, as a capacity bestowed upon man by God, must satisfy its ideal, that is that human being is the animal rationale and that there is correctness in human beings’ thinking. Human being measures up to the ideal only by accomplishing in its propositions the correspondence of what is thought to the matter/thing which in its turn must be in conformity with the ideal which is reason conceived as “logic”. If all beings are “created”, the possibility of the truth of human knowledge is grounded in the fact that the matter and the proposition measure up to the ideal in the same way and are fitted to each other on the basis of the unity of the divine plan of creation or the world order of creation which is “reasonable”.

The theologically conceived order of creation is later replaced by the idea that the capacity of all objects to be planned by means of a worldly reason (the principle of reason), the reasoning/logic of human beings, which supplies the law for itself was the “ideal” for human being. The principle of reason is something which is self-evident and thus also claims that its procedures are immediately intelligible (what is considered “logical”). It is here where human beings become the center of created things and where “humanism” has its beginnings. This occurs during the period that we call the Renaissance. The disappearance of God is a next logical step as He is no longer needed in this “human centered” world of human reason and calculation.


The correspondence theory of truth uses deductive reasoning proceeding from the general principles to the things to arrive at its “truths” regarding the “facts” as they are contained in its propositions. The coherence theory of truth moves from the empirical observations of perceived “facts” and, through inductive reasoning, attempts to arrive at the general principles of reason to attempt to provide a perceived explanation or account for the “facts”. Each of these is captured in your two assessments for TOK: your essay is to use deductive reasoning to arrive at specific examples (or “facts”) and your exhibition is to use inductive reasoning to move from a specific “fact” to a general principle regarding that fact. Each approach (methodology) to “truth” relies on logic which in turn relies on the principle of reason. The principle of reason (a 17th century definition first coined by the philosopher Leibniz) states that “Nothing is without reason” or “Nothing is for which a sufficient reason cannot be given”.

Leibniz (1646-1716) created both his finite mathematics (calculus) and also what we today call the “insurance industry”. These two creations are not so far apart as they may seem at first glance. Human beings require “certainty” and “security” as well as permanence with regard to their knowledge of the things and their being. Leibniz was competing with Isaac Newton and his infinitesimal calculus regarding the language that would best be used to ground and give an account of Newton’s discoveries regarding Nature. It was Leibniz’ mathematics which succeeded and which are still being studied today because they are most useful in calculating and commandeering the things of the world.

Leibniz’ effort was to mechanize deductive reasoning and its logic in his mathematics through which he hoped to build a “machine” that would generate all and only truths (notice the connection with the Medieval idea of truth): “How much better will it be to bring under mathematical laws human reasoning which is the most excellent and useful thing we have.” Doing this would enable the mind to “be freed from having to think directly of things themselves, and yet everything will turn out correct.” Leibniz was a contemporary of Newton and their efforts resulted in how human beings currently view the nature of the world we live in. It was Leibniz’ mathematics which determined the algorithms of today’s computer programmers and the language of many practitioners of the natural and human sciences.

This endeavour to mechanize thought by Leibniz captures what essentially happens in modern physical science which must report its findings in mathematical language. It is what allows the man in Moscow, Idaho and the woman in Moscow, Russia to arrive at conclusions regarding the nature of things without any specific object being directly under observation. The “machines” that Leibniz hoped to create are the beings that human beings themselves have now become. The AI machines that are currently being sought after will use the same reason and logic that created them. The “open region” which will give the “space” and allow for the existence of AI machines must first be preceded by the “viewing”, the ways of knowing, of the human beings who will create the open region that will allow the realization, or the space, for these AI machines. This viewing and the machines that will result from it will be a commandeering and commanding viewing, and this viewing has long been accomplished in the history of human being.

Returning to the origins of this viewing, according to Aristotle truth is the accordance (homoiosis) of a statement (logos) with a matter (pragma). A mathematical theory is also a statement regarding things or a matter. With regard to the correctness of the truths of propositions, some account must also be taken of error or falsity. Both the true and the false go hand in hand. Errors and false statements about things occur in the synthetic judgements we make about things, or in the predicates that we assign and relate to the things that are being discussed. Error is the product of human beings, not nature. These errors rest, as such, in the statements that we make about things. But how can statements about things be related to the things in the first place? Certainly, an account of something is not composed of the same elements as the thing of which it is an account. This question led the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to his great endeavour to answer the question “are synthetic judgements apriori possible”; that is, are the synthetic judgements of reason possible without the experience of the thing or matter with which they are concerned or connected? Notice how Kant’s effort followed Leibniz’s effort regarding the mind and its relation to things/matter. Both found their solutions in the language of mathematics and its symbolic logic which does not require the experience of the things themselves in order to be “correct”.

In order for a statement to relate to a thing or matter (pragma), the thing must be “present” in some way prior to any statement being made about it. But notice that in the example above regarding the two researchers in different Moscows, the thing is not “present” in any way that we conceive of  “presence”. But the thing becomes present as an idea in the mind. The thing is not an “object” that we would think of in any normal sense of reference to that word. The things are “present” in the open region that human beings themselves have opened up. These things as they are presented to us are given to us. Our ways of knowing are based on our relatedness to the thing/material and these ways of knowing pre-determine what our relatedness to the thing or our approaches to the thing are going to be. This relatedness in turn pre-determines the nature of the propositional statements which are made about the matter or thing in question.

For example, we do not enter a Group One class with the same view of a tree that we would have in a Group Four class: the tree is present to us in a different way but it, nevertheless, remains a tree. In our AOKs, some thing, the tree for example, must first be opened up as such and such and in such and such a way. The manner of the openness will determine the kinds of statements that can be made about the thing. All performances and their achievements, all actions and calculations, keep within an open region within which things and matters, with regard to what they are and how they are, can properly be present and take their stand and become capable of being talked about. The thing must first be defined and classified. A statement is correct (or true) only within the boundaries and standards (norms)  established within the openness of the viewing and a thing or matter can only correspond when this openness has been established. But if the correctness of statements is only possible through the openness of the viewing, what makes correctness possible must be prior to the correspondence as the essence of what truth is.

Pragmatic Theory of Truth

The third theory of truth, the pragmatic theory of truth, came to prominence in the writings and conclusions of three Americans: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Their writings were influenced by the British empiricists J. S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham as well as Charles Darwin, for the most part. In the writings of the Americans, the emphasis was on the pragma or the material substance (Nature) that was arrived at through “sense perception as a way of knowing” or what has been called empiricism. The pragmatic theory of truth primarily focuses on the “useful” as what was “true” and it was an attempt to overcome what they believed were the conclusions of the previous metaphysics and philosophy in order to replace those accounts for the why, the how and the what of things that were experienced with a “scientific account” or an account that was explainable in terms of science and the scientific method of inquiry. This misunderstanding of what metaphysics is/was in the history of the West has led to many of the contradictions present in this theory of truth.

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth holds that the “usefulness” of a proposition determines its truth. “Usefulness” is measured by whether or not the truth “works” and provides some “value” to the viewer and to the community of which he or she is a member. The Americans, Peirce and James, were the pragmatic theory of truth’s principal advocates but its origins can be found in the writings of the Englishmen Jeremy Bentham and his “utilitarianism” and in J. S. Mill’s material philosophy by way of the logic of Aristotle and its historical interpretation (or misinterpretation).

For the pragmatists, utility is the essential mark of truth and utility relates to “pragma” or the “matter at hand”. A pragmatic theory of truth is present in such TOK phrases as “the production of knowledge” or “the measurement” of some result to determine its success in relation to an “ideal” desired. The pragmatic theory of truth strongly relies on belief as a way of knowing, beliefs that lead to the best, most efficient results, or the best justifications of our actions (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”), or that promote “success” or what is considered to be “valued” as the best outcome.

William James’s version of the pragmatic theory is that “the ‘true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the ‘right’ is only the expedient in our way of behaving.” For James, “truth” is a matter of convenience whether in theory or in practice; it is the end that determines all. This becomes the principle of ethical action: truth is a “value” which is justified by its effectiveness when the applied concepts to actual practice “work”, and these ends are determined by our “convenience”. James said that “all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere”. For James, “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, then it is ‘true.’ ” Such a statement is the modern equivalent of the Medieval theologians’  questioning of how many angels could fit upon the head of a pin, and one need not wonder at the current mess that is present in American politics when one looks at what passes for philosophy there. The good end, the good result, will justify any means, and this principle of action has led to many of the great disasters that have marked the 20th and 21st centuries. It can, perhaps, best be captured in a quote from the scientist Robert Oppenheimer who said: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”  “Just do it” is an apt slogan for our age and one of the “principles” which has created its “moral compass” or lack thereof. It is what is today called “ideology” which may be said to be “the imagined existence (or idea/ideal) of things as it relates to the real conditions of existence”.

The pragmatic theory of truth operates where technology as a way of knowing and the principle of reason prevail. Charles Peirce wrote: “This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.” “Faith”, for Peirce, is “opinion” and it is the opinion of whichever class rules in a society at any particular time. This is quite distinct from the Platonic definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”. The pragmatists argue against the allegory of the Cave of Plato because they believe that there is nothing beyond the Cave that can be known or loved.

There appears to be very little room for freedom in Peirce’s conception of thought and reality, and one can see how the world of “alternative facts” could easily emerge given whatever opinion of the community predominates at the time (through political choices, for example), whatever has been decided upon or deified regardless of whether that community believes that it has arrived at its ends through democratic or fascistic means, whether the community’s choices are rational or irrational. What is decisive is the determinative ethos of the day. Decision is what is most important. It is the opinions of the Cave (to remember Plato’s allegory) which prevail, and the light shone on the things of the cave by the keepers of the fire is that which has been agreed to by the cave-dwellers as the light. For the pragmatists, this light has been shone by scientific research. But as we have seen, science is at a crisis at this point in its history.

John Dewey agrees with Peirce on what can be considered truth: “The best definition of truth from the logical standpoint which is known to me is that by Peirce: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.” For Dewey, truth is the belief best exhibited by the scientists in their inquiries into the nature of what is.

“Truth” comes to be replaced by “ideology”. It is the view that prevails when one accepts Darwin’s account of the being of beings and what “fittedness” has come to mean in modern societies. As the American philosopher Sally Haslanger has said: “The function of ideology is to stabilize and perpetuate dominance through masking or illusion.” It is these masks and illusions that have come to dominate our ethics and our politics in the form of mass movements and ideologies. It is this lack of self-knowledge which illustrates our age as a tragic age.

The “belief” element in the pragmatic theory of truth has led to the position of  “alternative facts” where, for the sake of convenience or “usefulness”, the “matter” or the “pragma” being discussed is disputed in its nature. “Usefulness” rests on the proposition’s ability to “empower” someone and this “empowerment” is a matter of convenience for the individual and the community; if it is not convenient, it can easily be cast aside. For example, it may be “useful” to someone to have a belief in a god for psychological reasons while it may not be useful to another to have such a belief. The utility to the individual and the community is the prime determiner of the truth of the thing. This is a common critique of the pragmatic theory of truth for this standpoint is a violation of the principle of contradiction and, therefore, a violation of the principle of reason: a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite at the same time. But this is not to deny the fact that in the pragmatic theory of truth the principle of reason, whether realized through algebraic calculation or through the definitions of algorithms, still prevails. The critique of the pragmatic theory of truth states that, ultimately, the pragmatic theory of truth is irrational. The madness can only be deep in a society which holds forth its opposite, when rationality is coupled with idolatry and the blasphemy of thinking that the god’s will is scrutable. The rational and the irrational belong together.

One can see an example of where ideology overrules science in the recent rejections of the notion of “climate change” by certain individuals and groups. Because the scientific findings or “facts” are not “convenient” to certain individuals or groups within the community (fossil fuel promoters for example), the scientific facts are rejected for the sake of the benefits of their short term gains or “empowerment”. Al Gore’s film entitled An Inconvenient Truth is aptly named. But at the bottom of the climate change deniers’ view is a much more worrisome and deadly viewing of the world, and that viewing is nihilism.

Freedom in the Age of the Dimming Truth

Truth, knowledge and freedom are interconnected, and how we conceive them determines how we conceive of ourselves as human beings.

How do the things that we know come to presence for us? To presence here means to let the thing stand opposed to us as object. When the thing is placed in this way, the thing that stands opposed must traverse that open region of opposedness and yet must maintain its stand as a thing and show itself as something standing opposed. This appearing of the thing in the open region of opposedness takes place within the open region, the openness of which is not first created by the presencing of the thing but rather is entered into and taken over as a domain of relatedness or what we have come to call an area of knowledge, how we have come to define the things. The relation of the presentative statement (the proposition) to the thing, what we say about the thing, is accomplished through that way of knowing which originally and always comes to prevail as our comportment toward the thing. We have already indicated that, today, this comportment is Reason or a type of reason that is distinguished by “logic” and the concepts that are derived from logic. But all of our ways of knowing and our comportments towards the things are distinguished by the fact that, standing in the open region, they adhere to something already opened up as such. What is opened up in this way was experienced early in Western thinking by the Greeks as “what is present” and for a long time has been named “being.” What, then, is the relation of freedom to knowledge and to truth?

Freedom is not to be understood as human caprice, nor does it rest on or in what is considered to be “convenient” within the social contexts predominating at any time. The essence of freedom is truth; and truth’s essence is freedom. Paradoxically, both involve an “owingness” and an “indebtedness“; and at times what is owed and what we are indebted to is not “convenient” for us in any way. This is what the Greeks referred to as “justice”; it is what we are “fitted for” as full human beings. To make a simple statement about it: we “owe” it to our children to leave the earth as a habitable planet for them and so we must take action against climate change and the threat of nuclear war. This “owingness” is an example of our indebtedness to the “otherness”  that is other human beings (and potential human beings) as individuals and as a species, and to the earth and what is upon it, since the earth is “good” for us and to us in some way even if we believe only for our survival as a species.

To understand our human freedom it is necessary to rethink the ordinary concept of truth that is given in the correctness of statements arrived at through logic and reason and to think it back to what was originally meant by truth for the Greeks. Today, to engage oneself with the unconcealment of beings in the open region is not to lose oneself in them, not to search and create more “novelty” in our experiences of beings and in our discourses about them; rather, our engagement should be a withdrawal in the face of beings in order that they might reveal themselves with respect to what and how they are  in order for the presentative correspondence (that which brings the things to “presence”) can take its standard from them, not from ourselves. This letting-be of beings, the things that are, our comportment toward them, exposes itself to beings as such and transposes or changes all comportments or ways of knowing that we stand in within the open region. Letting-be, i. e., freedom, is intrinsically exposing, an opening and opening up of our world and speaking about beings and our comportment towards them. Considered in regard to the essence of truth, the essence of freedom manifests itself as our exposure to the unconcealment of the beings themselves as we find them in our areas of knowledge.

Freedom is not merely what our common sense is content to allow, our freedom of choices based on whims in whatever direction whatsoever. It is not the mere absence of constraints or restraints on our choosing with respect to what we can and cannot do, our supposed ethical actions. It is not what is conceived when “the open society and its enemies” is spoken about.

If we look at what is written here and relate it back to the thinking of Aristotle as the origin of the understanding of the notions of truth as correspondence and coherence, we can say that “logic” is not the origin of the notion of “truth” but a precursor or prelude to what was understood, by the Greeks, as “truth”. “Logic” is a comportment or mode of being in the world, one possible among many.

This is what primarily distinguishes Aristotle from Plato. “Science” for Aristotle was both “theoretical” and “practical”: theoretical science was composed of physics (natural science), mathematics and metaphysics; practical science was composed of ethics, economics and political science in the narrower sense of how we understand that term. Science’s foundation was based on the science of science: logic. The victory of science over metaphysics that occurs in the 17th century with Newton’s overturning of Aristotle’s physics through the logic of modern mathematics led to a “metaphysically neutral” physics. This “metaphysically neutral” physics is what allows the woman in Moscow, Russia and the man in Moscow, Idaho to conceive of their ideas regarding the what and the how of things interdependently. This interdependence became the opinion regarding the nature of things that is the foundation of the “pragmatic” theory of truth and the overcoming of the interconnection between “truth” and ethical or political action. Ethics and prudence as the height of political action are “values”, not facts. This belief in the “neutrality” of truth will predominate as we move towards the global society that is the end goal of the technological world-view.

This separation of science from metaphysics, occurring in the 17th century, led to what we call the “fact-value” distinction which in turn led to the creation and separation of an economics which was distinct from ethical actions, and for a sociology that did not distinguish between which hierarchies of associations are worthy to be studied i.e. whether political associations are higher than non-political associations and therefore more worthy of study.

What distinguishes Aristotle from the moderns is that for Aristotle human actions have principles of their own which are not derived from the theoretical or physical sciences. Today, of course, the principles of human actions that are in any way to be conceived of as “knowledge” of those actions are based on the discoveries of the bio-sciences. The “lower” determines what truth is considered to be and not the “higher”, and this viewing has brought about a “vulgarity” in our politics in the 20th and 21st centuries not seen in centuries prior. Fascism as a political phenomenon is a  modern political phenomenon. The theories of the bio-sciences are the manner of viewing which rests on a dogmatic atheism which presents itself as merely methodological or hypothetical or as “objective” rather than “subjective”.

Human actions were seen by Aristotle to be guided by prudence which must constantly be defended from theoretical attacks (which is the goal of this particular blog) and these defenses must be based on theory of some kind; the theory in itself is not the ground of prudence. Prudence presupposes an awareness of political things (ethical things) based on pre-scientific observations and thoughts. Prudence is based on the idea that there is a common good for societies that can be perceived and understood. The common good in its fullness is the good society and what is required for the good society. By teaching and promoting the equality of literally all desires through our views of “freedom” with the rationale of the “fact/value” distinction, we teach that there is nothing of which a human being ought to be ashamed; by destroying the possibility of self-contempt,  we destroy with the best of intentions the possibility of self-respect. By teaching the equality of all values, by denying that there are things which are intrinsically high and others which are intrinsically low, as well as by denying that there is an essential difference between human beings and brutes, we have unwittingly contributed to the victory of the gutter.

May 2019 Prescribed Titles


A few notes of warning and guidance before we begin:

The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are strategies for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given.

The notes here are intended to guide you towards a thoughtful, personal response to the prescribed titles posed.  They are not to be considered as the answer and they should only be used to help you provide another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles and from your TOK class discussions. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools of Anglo-America and this education pre-determines their predilection to view the world as they do and to understand the concepts as they do. The TOK course itself is a product of this logical positivism.

There is no substitute for your own personal thought and reflection, and these notes are not intended as a cut and paste substitute to the hard work that thinking requires. Some of the comments on one title may be useful to you in the approach you are taking in the title that you have personally chosen, so it may be useful to read all the comments and give them some reflection.

My experience has been that candidates whose examples match those to be found on TOK “help” sites (and this is another of those TOK help sites) struggle to demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge claims and knowledge questions contained in the examples.  The best essays carry a trace of a struggle that is the journey on the path to thinking. Many examiners state that in the very best essays they read, they can visualize the individual who has thought through them sitting opposite to them. To reflect this struggle in your essay is your goal.

Remember to include sufficient TOK content in your essay. When you have completed your essay, ask yourself if it could have been written by someone who had not participated in the TOK course. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then you do not have sufficient TOK content in your essay. Personal and shared knowledge, the knowledge framework, the ways of knowing and the areas of knowledge are terms that you need to reference in your discussions.

Here is a link to a PowerPoint that contains recommendations and a flow chart outlining the steps to writing a TOK essay. Comments, observations and discussions are welcome.

The May 2019 Prescribed Titles

1. “The quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The knowledge questions that arise from within title #1 are in its use of the concepts of “quality”, “knowledge”, “measured”, “how many people”, and “accept”. Reflection shows us that these are all related to “value” determinations of what “knowledge” is and how its “quality” may be measured. The “quality of knowledge”, historically, has been measured by its “usefulness” towards the achievement of the ends that human beings have determined and have in mind. 

For example, in the IB itself the “quality of knowledge” which has been determined to be the most “useful” is that given to us through the sciences. Views of which subjects are chosen by students and their parents illustrate this. This may be contrasted with the quality and value of knowledge which may be gotten through the Arts. Our acceptance of the value of the knowledge to be gained in the sciences is seen in our societies’ rewarding of positions of money and power to those who have knowledge in these areas.

Knowledge that arises from the sciences and the mastering of this knowledge is what is held as “valuable” today and has been held as valuable for the past two hundred years or so . This “usefulness” is due to the fact that this “knowledge” “empowers” us in meeting our ends which, at bottom, are the controlling and commandeering of beings/things towards what is determined to be “useful” for us. Whether this be in the health sciences or the social sciences, this “empowerment” to achieve “useful ends” in the aim of the hard work that is required to master these areas of knowledge. Our “production of knowledge” is the desire to control “chance” and necessity and the power that arises through this control and mastery. The world and its resources viewed as “disposable” to our ends is our “empowerment”, and the value of this “empowerment” is recognized by our communities through our “shared knowledge” in the construction of what our curriculums will be in our education and in the awarding of the variety of positions of power within our communities for those who have mastered those curriculums or those who have gained the theoretical and practical knowledge that is to be found through those curriculums or our “shared knowledge”.

In order for something to be considered “knowledge”, an account must be rendered of what that “something” is. In TOK, we call this account our WOKs or our ways of knowing. Our ways of knowing are our renderings of the accounts of things: the ‘what’, the ‘why’, and the ‘how’ of some thing. That which we call “personal knowledge”, knowledge which may, perhaps, be most important to us as individuals, is quite “useless” without its being rendered or given over to others. We render this knowledge in our accounts of things through language, reason, emotion, etc.

What is the knowledge that allows or drives an individual to chose to become a member of Medicins Sans Frontieres rather than choosing the more ‘powerful’ other options which are available to that individual, for instance? Clearly, this is a ‘knowledge’ of some thing which the majority do not accept, but is it the knowledge of the art of medicine itself or the knowledge that brings one to make such a choice the knowledge that is most important? And which knowledge has more ‘quality’? One can see here the ‘value’ estimations which we use when we think of what knowledge is and these value estimations are part of the “shared knowledge” that we have in our possession and that has been given over to us.

The account of the knowledge of things held to be most “robust” or “useful” for us is that which is given through the mathematical in the form of algebraic calculation. This account of the knowledge of things is the “language as a way of knowing” that allows us to “measure” things whether through statistics (“how many people”) or through some other calculation that renders the “reasons” for things being as they are and allows us to make judgements about them (their ‘truth’). The rendering of reasons is based on the principle of reason as a way of knowing (“nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a reason or a cause”). The rendering of reasons is what we call “evidence”. Such a rendering of the account of things is shown, for example, in the algorithms which dominate our sciences and information technologies and communications in today’s world. This rendering of accounts through the principle of reason may be metaphorically compared to a fish and its surrounding by water: the fish is entirely unaware of the water which surrounds it but that water nevertheless sustains its life. So, too, the rendering of our accounts of things through the principle of reason is “useful” for sustaining our lives.

In contrast to the quality of knowledge found in the sciences is the quality of knowledge found in the Arts. In advanced technological societies, the Arts are what we do in our leisure time and thus are relegated to being of secondary importance. This is quite distinct from the place of the Arts in other societies at other times and places in the histories of the West and the East. The knowledge to be gained through and from the Arts is secondary to that knowledge which we gain through the sciences because of our reliance on the rendering of accounts through the principle of reason. The empowering that is to be gained through the Arts is held to be of less value than that which can be gained through the calculative sciences since we consider the ‘truth’ of the Arts to be ‘subjective’ personal knowledge and not the concrete objective knowledge given to us through our employment of the scientific method. The Arts are seen as “valuable” through their ability to create for us “aesthetic experiences” deepening our personal knowledge, and our views of the arts are primarily through sense perception as a way of knowing.

2. “The production of knowledge  is always a collaborative task and never solely a product of the individual.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #2 allows you to explore the relationship between ‘personal’ and ‘shared’ knowledge and its impact on the Areas of Knowledge. It also allows you to explore the relationship between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ and whether these two concepts are separable or not. “Collaboration” as the workings of “shared knowledge” in the present through the past might also allow some exploration of memory as a way of knowing and its relation to the AOKs. Remember that memory is both a personal WOK as well as a collective WOK.

A collaborative task is only possible where the vision of the members of the collaboration are unified, and this unification comes about through an acceptance of the “truth” of the original viewing or the “theory”. To paraphrase the philosopher Hegel,  “A single mind is enough for a million hands” and this involves that the truth of the viewing must be accepted in advance before any progress towards an outcome or “product” can take place.

The use of the terms “always” and “never” bring about some points of contention in this title as these “value judgements” always do. These visions or viewings of the collaborators may be unified by the end in view, the goal of the collaboration such as the ‘bottom line’ in business or corporate enterprises (the need to bring about results), or by the view driving the tasks that are being conducted, how one is to best achieve improvements in the ‘bottom line’ in the most efficient manner. You are using such a ‘view’ in reading this blog in the hope that it will help you to achieve the best result possible in your goal of writing the essay within the collaboration that is called an “IB education”. Astrophysicists, for example, collaborate on exploring the meaning of the data given to them by recent revelations brought about by the findings of the new telescopes in outer space. Their viewing of this data, how this data will be viewed, has already been pre-determined for them.

When we speak of the “production of knowledge” or knowledge as a “product” we are looking at knowledge as the outcome of a “making” or a “manufacturing” so that it will come to stand before us as an “object”. It is a process involving the use of materials and ideas that will “bring forth” (from the Latin producere) some thing that will be of “use” or of some “value” for us. We might call this process “experiment” in the sciences, and in the other writings in this blog it is referred to as “technology as a way of knowing” involving logos as the “knowing” and techne as the “making”. When this knowing and making involves many individuals, it may be contrasted with the “knowing” of the single individual who discovers or invents the “theory” that provides the viewing for the many. The single individual also works in a “collaboration” of a kind with the “shared knowledge” that has been given over to him or her. The discoveries of modern physics are not possible without the initial discoveries of Newton.

In the Arts, the relation of the individual to the tradition or of  the individual’s personal to the shared knowledge of the community of which he or she is a member is a possibility for exploration and discussion. While many “products” of the Arts are spoken of as “productions” (i.e. theatre, film, dance), and must certainly be seen as collaborations, many artistic works are clearly the products of single individuals (i.e. novels, paintings, etc.), but these individuals must work within a collaboration with the tradition and their audience in order for their works to communicate with the societies around them. The question of what “knowledge” is and what knowledge is “produced” in the Arts can also provide some fruitful areas for exploration.

3. Do good explanations have to be true?

Title #3 asks us to consider what makes for a “good explanation” and whether or not “truth” is necessary when giving an account of some thing. The rendering of an account of something is related to language and reason as ways of knowing primarily, and the account may be rendered through words or through numbers and symbols. An “explanation” provides an account of the “what”, the “how” and the “why” some thing is as it is and encompasses all phenomena.

Any attempt to render an explanation of something involves some “knowledge” of some kind of that thing, and to have knowledge of some thing involves having made some judgement regarding the “truth” of the “what” (definition), the “how’ or the “why” of the thing beforehand. One cannot begin an “explanation” without first having some notion of “truth” regarding the thing that one is trying to explain. This prior “knowledge” of some thing is what we call “understanding” and we “understand” something when we believe we have the “reasons” for its being as it is. When someone in authority says to you “You better have a good explanation for this” when you have made a mistake of some kind, they are looking for your account of the what, the contexts (the how) and the consequences for the error which you may have made. “Explanations” require “evidence” which corresponds to the reality of what is present. When the explanation and the evidence do not correspond with the reality (the correspondence theory of truth), what is given in the account of the thing is mere fantasy. There are many examples that you can find and use to discuss this point.

This title can be approached by looking at it from discussions of at least two WOKs or ways of knowing or how the ways of knowing account for the explanations that occur in two AOKs or areas of knowledge. Discussions of language as a WOK and reason as a WOK would be fruitful in approaching the title. Any account of things in the Natural Sciences must be given in “numbers” or in “symbols” for we believe that it is through calculation that we can be “certain” of what some thing is and we are able to make accurate predictive calculations of how and why it will behave in the way it does through these calculations. These calculations give us mastery and control over the thing even though they may lack an “explanation” for the “why” and the “what” of the thing.

For an explanation to be considered “good”, belief as a way of knowing might also be considered since “belief” deals with the phenomena of “facts” and what we believe those “facts” to be or how we account for those facts. Today, much silly ink is being spouted regarding “alternative facts”, but the fact is that the alternatives being spoken about are, really, the accounts of or for the facts or the “explanations” of the facts. These accounts may be true or false. When they are “true”, they bring the thing being spoken about “to light” so that it can be seen for what it is; when they are “false”, the account covers or hides the thing. Disputes over how things are accounted for have been with human beings since the beginning: the contest between Socrates and the Sophists in ancient Greece is one example of this ongoing discussion in the history of the West. The current persistent attack on truth in politics bodes ill for the future of human beings as human beings are the animals that require truth in order to be human beings (if Plato, Aristotle and others in both the West and the East are to be believed).

Your essay might consider the importance of “truth” and its relation to “good explanations”. There are three predominant theories of truth present today: the correspondence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, and the pragmatic theory of truth. These theories of truth arise from an interpretation (whether correct or not) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s logic. The principle of reason as a way of knowing is what is operative in Aristotle’s account of things. When the thing being studied corresponds to the ideas in the mind then the “truth” of the thing is present and with it knowledge and understanding of the thing.  The “be-cause” is answered. When we make errors regarding a thing, these errors are the results of mistakes in the synthesis of our accounts of the categories of the things (i.e. its color, size, location, etc., the “coherence” of the synthesis of our accounts) not the presence of the thing itself that is being considered (or what we consider a “fact” to be). Our account of gravity, for instance, is incomplete but not “untrue”. Elements of truth are present in it to account for our knowledge and understanding of it and, thus, our “explanations” of it. Without “truth” we have no knowledge or understanding of the things that we are addressing and cannot “give over” to others an account of the thing, and it is this giving or handing over of the accounts that is essential. It is, if you like, what you are attempting to do in your essay.

4. “Disinterestedness is essential in the pursuit of knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

“Disinterestedness” is the key concept in title #4 and warrants some careful reflection. Is “disinterestedness” possible given the conditions of the existence of human beings and the existence of their world? We would like to think that the “scientific method”, for instance, has a “disinterestedness” that must be inherent in it in order to avoid the errors that might arise from emotions or biases in order for its results to be “objective”. Is “objectivity” possible is one knowledge question that arises from this position. Two AOKs where this can be examined and explored are the Natural and the Human Sciences. Given the cost of research in the sciences, is it possible for those engaged in it to be “disinterested”? Isn’t most research today in the natural and human sciences “vested interests”? How does the concept of “disinterestedness” relate to our concepts of personal and shared knowledge? Do the majority of students who study the sciences in the IB do so out of a “disinterestedness” in terms of what they hope to learn and in their pursuit of knowledge? In our age of “empowerment”, is “disinterestedness” just another name for “indifference” as long as the thing being interrogated is under our command and control?

The historical background of the notion of “disinterestedness” begins with Aristotle’s unique coining of the term “bios theoretikos” or the “theoretical life”. This mode of being in the world was the goal of the philosopher for Aristotle. It was later understood by the Latins and the monks of the early Christian Church to be the “contemplative” life as opposed to the life of engagement in caritas or charity. This conflict in many of its permutations is still present with us today when we consider the “usefulness” of what we discover and why we study what we study and to what ends the results will be used.

Our own view of the importance of “disinterestedness” in the pursuit of knowledge is the result of the emphasis we place on Cartesianism, the separation of subject and object, in our approach to how we view (the theoretical) the world. This separation was grounded in the great writings of the German philosopher Kant in his critiques of pure reason, practical reason and judgement. We are still living out the works of Kant, and his thinking is being eroded by the later thinking of Darwin and Nietzsche . For Descartes, in order for some thing “to be”, then that thing must be “represented” by the mind of the subject. The two central features of modernity are that human beings are the centre of beings as a whole, the subject to which they are all referred, and that ‘the beingness of beings as a whole is conceived as the being-represented of the producible and explainable. This manner of thinking that we call “conceptual thinking”, determines beforehand the nature of our ways of knowing: reason, imagination, language, etc. Descartes’s view was that whenever I think about anything I also think that I think. In the representing, that which is represented and the representer are always co-represented at the same time. What we call “humanism” finds its grounding in the thinking of Descartes.

The findings of Kant and his thinking have been brought into question by the discoveries of modern physics in the 20th century. For example, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg has stated: “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.”  The language that Heisenberg is referring to here is mathematics, and the answers to the questions that we pose are in the certainty of  our calculations regarding the outcomes or results which gives us the ability to predict the behaviours of the objects that are under study and, thus, give us control  over them so that they may be applied to our ends. But it is not “nature” that is being “known” here. Is this end of our knowledge, the mastery of nature in the sciences, really “disinterested”? What is the purpose of this “mastery”? How does this relate to the Human Sciences where the object of study is human beings and the development of techniques for their mastery and control? These are just some of the  knowledge questions that might be used when choosing examples to explore this title.

5. “The production of knowledge requires accepting conclusions that go beyond the evidence for them.” Discuss this claim.

When we speak about the “production” of some thing such as “knowledge”, we are speaking about knowledge as a “project”, an entity or thing that relates to our conceptual, representational thinking and the “correspondence theory of truth” of what we call our “shared knowledge” in our TOK language. To “produce” something means to bring it forth out of hiding whether that something is a peach in an orchard and is the product of Nature (and thus relates to our word “produce” when referring to things such as fruits and vegetables) or the latest tech gadget from Apple which is the “produce” of human beings. “Production” is a “bringing forth”. “Production” is related to the Greek word techne which is the “knowing” and the “know how” that guides our relations to the things that are produced by Nature and to Nature itself as well as our knowing that is related to the things produced or made by human beings. It is a kind of “knowing” that allows for the “making” of such things as hand phones and computers and we call this knowing and making “technology”.

“Conclusions” relate to our judgements of what some thing is. Our judgements are the definitions that we give to things thus providing the limits to the things so that we may classify them as such and such a thing and place them in our Areas of Knowledge. For example, while we accept the existence of atoms, we have no appropriate models to “represent” them given the “evidence” that we have regarding their nature and behaviour. Atoms are symbolic entities represented by an algebraic formula, and their physical “existence” is “skipped over” in order that we may “produce” knowledge based on the conclusions that we have already arrived at regarding the atom’s nature and what it is. In this skipping over, we “go beyond” the issue of our lack of knowledge of what the thing such as an atom might be. The Rutherford model that is sometimes used to describe an atom is simply a piece of fantasy and does not relate to the reality of the atom.

Because the mathematics of atoms or of anything else works in producing the outcomes that we desire, we do not care what the nature of the atom really is as long as we are able to produce reliable results or conclusions and can make use of those results or conclusions. This is the crisis of modern science when we consider that the word “science” means “knowledge”. Science does not and cannot reflect or question its own beginnings because this would stop it from “producing” the kind of knowledge that we are speaking about here. Science cannot conduct an experiment to provide the evidence that shows what science itself is; that is, it cannot give an “account” of itself scientifically. “Evidence” is what we call the “account of something”. It is the answer to the question of “why” and begins with “be-cause”. It is the rendering of reasons.

We have much greater knowledge of the things which we have “produced” or made than we do of the things that we have not produced or made or the things that are the products of Nature. The results or accounts of science must be reported in the language of mathematics for this is the only language adequate for the thinking that allows the space for the “production” of this type of knowledge to occur. When we speak of this kind of knowledge it must be acknowledged that it is a knowledge that operates within a limited horizon regarding its understanding of “what”, “why” and “how” things are, but again, this does not really matter to us as long as we can make “use” of the results that are gathered. Again, this is the crisis of science in our era.

In the Arts one can discuss our general lack of knowledge regarding the mysteries of imagination, language, the work of art and Art itself. To produce or bring forth the work of art whether as a “production” or an object of art does not require that we know or are certain of what “art” is, or what “language” is, or what the “imagination” is. The work “speaks for itself” and is its own account. We may discuss whether something is or is not art or whether a production is “good” or “bad” but these are secondary to the work itself. The artist is originated by the work of art. The point is not simply that no one is an artist until he or she creates a work, but that the artist is not in control of his or her own creativity. Art is a sort of impersonal force that uses the artist for its own purposes and in this way the artist must accept “conclusions” (the work) over which they have no or limited “control” or “evidence”. This may be the reason why artists find it so difficult to account for their art; they simply do not know.

The aesthetic view of art so prevalent today stems from the human-centred metaphysic of modernity or what we call humanism, and coheres with the conception of beings as what is ‘objectively representable’. My own states, the way I feel in the presence of something, determines my view of everything I encounter. Art is thus “subjective”. Hence art has become a device for the provision of ‘experience and part of our “personal knowledge”. This view is abetted by the view that a work of art is a thing, a crafted thing, with aesthetic value superimposed on it by us. Despite the Greek use of techne for both ‘craft’ and ‘art’ (since techne means bringing forth beings through “know how”), this “production” is present both in human beings and in Nature. The “ends”, the conclusions, are accepted even though we have no “knowledge” of the whats, the hows and the whys of the things.

6. “One way to assure the health of a discipline is to nurture contrasting perspectives.” Discuss this claim.

Using the metaphor of “health” when speaking about a “discipline” indicates that the discipline is considered a “living being” or a living thing. We do not speak of the “health” of rocks, for instance. To be capable of living implies, concurrently, the capability of dying so the “knowledge” that is present in the discipline is not permanent but historical.

The statement implies an historical approach to knowledge. This statement is very much a “modern” viewpoint or “perspective”. The great thinker of perspectivism in the West was Friedrich Nietzsche. Plato, by contrast, saw knowledge as being contained in the Ideas and in the beholding of the Ideas and was thus “permanent” or eternal. Title #6 implies that the “methodology”, the “discipline” of any area of knowledge for how the things within that area of knowledge are to be beheld and accounted for, is contained in the “perspective” or the “viewing”, the theory and the concepts resulting from the theory, which drives the methodology forward. “Contrasting perspectives” are not from within the “viewing” itself, the “theory”, but in the accounts that result from this viewing. The viewing is but one possible way of viewing; many others are possible.

We see various accounts in the various disciplines in the experiments that are performed by scientists, for instance, or in the papers that are required to be written by the learned professors in their academic disciplines. Some of these accounts are quite silly and I’m sure that many of you will be able to find ample examples of these academic inanities for your papers. Some are merely “putting old wine into new wine skins” where concepts and ideas that were much better thought out by our predecessors in our shared knowledge are renamed to give them, what the unthinking moderns believe is some modern relevance.

Thinking involves asking questions. A question is distinct from a knowledge problem. A knowledge problem (such as the freewill problem) is an objectified timeless entity, extracted by philosophers from the works of Plato, Kant, etc. It is something studied in the Group 3 course on philosophy and its history of philosophical ideas. A question is a concrete, situated event and it is something you are asked to do in both your oral presentations and in your essays through arriving at the questions in the examples that you have chosen. Questions, unlike problems, are not restricted to a traditional menu or historical account that has become part of our shared knowledge. Does the “health” of a discipline imply the kind of thinking that is within it and the kinds of questions which are asked in that discipline? Is the horizon of the thinking within a discipline quite limited in the possibilities of its “various perspectives”? Does science “think” and is it capable of thinking? Is there any perspective in the arts that goes beyond the viewing of the arts as an “aesthetic experience” i.e. art as an object?

In exploring title #6, using the knowledge framework to explore the key concepts of the AOKs chosen and the WOKs within those AOKs might be a fruitful approach. Arriving at some statements regarding the “health” of an AOK, and providing an account for the making of those statements could result in a good paper.


Personal Knowledge: What is Called Thinking

“The answer to the question “What is called thinking?” is, of course, a statement, but not a proposition that could be formed into a sentence with which the question can be put aside as settled…The question cannot be settled, now or ever…Thinking itself is a way. We respond to the way only by remaining underway.” (Heidegger: What is Called Thinking?) 

“Just as it is with bats’ eyes in respect of daylight, so it is with our mental vision in respect of those things which are by nature most apparent.” Aristotle (Metaphysics​ Ch. I, Bk 2, 993b)

​”The conditions of the possibility of experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience.” Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, A 158, B 197)

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘morning, boys. How’s the water?’ and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘what the hell is water?'”- David Foster Wallace. Kenyon. 2005.

Thinking and TOK

This writing on Thinking attempts to show how thinking is not so much an “act” or “activity” as it is a way of living or dwelling or, as North Americans would say, “a way of life” or “lifestyle”. It is a remembering of who and what we are as human beings and where we belong. It builds on what has been discovered in the reading of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and attempts to continue on the path to understanding the relationship between “education” and “truth”.

To begin with, thinking is not “having an opinion” or a notion about something. It is not representing or having an idea about something or about some state of affairs. Thinking is not “ratiocination”, developing a chain of premises which lead to a valid conclusion. Lastly, it is not conceptual or systematic. It is not algorithmic.

“We come to know what thinking means when we ourselves try to think” (Heidegger). Thinking involves a questioning and a putting ourselves in question as much as the cherished opinions and doctrines we have inherited through our education or our shared knowledge. Putting in question is not a “method” that proceeds from “doubt” as it was for Descartes. The questioning or inquiring is a “clearing of the path” (and anyone who has had to ‘clear a path’ through dense jungle in this part of the world knows the difficulty of “clearing a path”) with no destination in mind. Questioning and thinking are not a means to an end; they are self-justifying. But the paths of thinking often become “dead-ends”: and our age abhors “dead ends”. The approach to thinking that is thought here is to bring to light what is currently called thinking and to “awaken” a new approach to “what calls for thinking” which is the essence of what you are asked to do in the TOK course. But how can you go about doing this?

How is thinking to be distinguished from “method” or from following a method such as algorithmic thinking? What is the relationship between memory as a way of knowing and thinking? Does any “thinking” take place in the areas of knowledge of TOK? Is there room for thinking in TOK i.e. an openness to thinking?

The great work of literature on the relationship between thinking, method and memory is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius’ observation of Hamlet: “Tho’ this be madness yet there is method in it” could be used as an opening or a way into an analysis of our times. “Rationality” as method may not necessarily be sane…

What is thinking? What Calls for Thinking?

“We all still need an education in thinking, and first of all, before that, knowledge of what being educated and uneducated in thinking means. In this respect Aristotle gives us a hint in Book IV of his Metaphysics (1006a if.): . . – “For it is uneducated not to have an eye for when it is necessary to look for a proof and when this is not necessary.”—Martin Heidegger “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”

To examine what thinking is and to ask the further question of what calls for thinking, we shall examine what is called thinking and what the philosophers have thought on thinking. We shall try to stay mindful of how the understanding of thinking’s essence and what is called thinking today is a result of the manner in which Plato’s allegory of the cave came to be interpreted, primarily by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. When we are exhorted to think “outside of the box”, the manner of the thinking that we are exhorted towards still remains within the “box” in which thinking has been traditionally framed. This thinking remains an “active doing” upon the objects that present themselves before us.

The 20th century’s great philosopher, Martin Heidegger, said: “Most thought-provoking is that we are still not thinking – not even yet, although the state of the world is becoming constantly more thought-provoking.” (What is Called Thinking? p. 4) For us, thinking is traditionally thought to be “rationality”, “reason”, “judgement”. Heidegger, somewhat provocatively, says: “[M]an today is in flight from thinking.” (Discourse on Thinking p. 45) Not only do we not think; human beings are actively avoiding thinking. For Heidegger, all the scientific work today, all the research and development, all the political machinations and posings, even contemporary philosophy, represents a flight from thinking. “[P]art of this flight is that man will neither see nor admit it. Man today will even flatly deny this flight from thinking. He will assert the opposite. He will say – and quite rightly – that there were at no time such far-reaching plans, so many inquiries in so many areas, research carried on as passionately as today. Of course.” (Discourse on Thinking 45)

But for Heidegger, science does not think: and this is its blessing. “This situation is grounded in the fact that science itself does not think, and cannot think – which is its good fortune, here meaning the assurance of its own appointed course.” (What is Called Thinking? p. 8) What Heidegger is saying is that if science actually thought, we would cease to have science as we know it. And if this should happen, we would no longer have clean toilets, penicillin, and all of the wonderful discoveries of science. Science does not think because the grounding of science is in a faith: its belief  is that what is real is what it reveals.

We shall never learn “what is called swimming”, for example, or “what calls for swimming” by reading a book on swimming. Only a leap into the deep end of the pool will tell us what is called swimming and what calls for swimming. The question of “what is called thinking?” can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept “thinking”.

Rene Descartes

In the West, thought about thinking has been called “logic” which we have associated with “reason as a way of knowing” based on the principle of reason. This “logic” has received its flowering in the natural and human sciences under the term “logistics”. Logistics, today, is considered the only legitimate form or way of knowing because its results and procedures ensure the construction of the technological world. Logistics is an interesting word in that its use as a noun implies “symbolic logic” (mathematical algebraic calculation) and it is also related to the conduct of warfare. Its use as mathematical calculation is found in what is called logical positivism which is a new branch of the branch of philosophy that was previously known as empiricism. The thinking in logical positivism is the thinking expressed as algebraic calculation: only that which can be calculated can be known and is worth knowing.  To elaborate how this has come to be the case would require an analysis of 17th century philosophy and mathematics beyond what we intend in this writing. Suffice it to say that this is part of our inherited shared knowledge that we have received from the philosopher Rene Descartes. It is called Cartesianism.

Calculative Thinking:

Today we think that thought is the mind working to solve problems. We can see this in many of the quotes that are looked to as words of inspiration for young people. Thought is the mind analyzing what the senses bring in and acting upon it. Thought is understanding circumstances or the premises of a situation and reasoning out conclusions, actions to be taken. This is thinking, working through from A to B in a situation. Thoughts are representations of the world (real or not doesn’t matter, only the mind’s action does), or considerations about claims or representations (knowledge issues or questions), and the conclusions or judgements that are made. We think we know exactly what thought is because it is what we think we do. And as the animal rationale, the “rational animal”, how is it possible for thinking to be something we can fly from as it is our nature? Any examination of materials for approaching TOK illustrates, rather clearly, that we assume we already know what thinking is, what knowledge is. That is why so many of the posed questions can begin with “To what extent…” There is a pre-conceived hierarchy against which a response can be measured.

When we use the word ‘thinking’, our thought immediately goes back to a well-known set of definitions that we have learnt in our life or in our studies, what we have inherited from our shared knowledge. Definitions provide the limits to things, their horizons so that they can be known to us. These limits we call “meaning”. To us thinking is a mental activity that helps us to solve problems, to deal with situations, to understand circumstances and, according to this understanding, to take action in order to move forward. It is algorithmic. Thinking for us also means to have an opinion, to have an impression that something is in a certain way. Thinking means reasoning, the process of reaching certain conclusions through a series of statements. Thinking is “a means of mastery” or control over the ‘problems’ which confront us and stand as obstacles in our achieving our ends.

On the special kind of thinking that occurs in science, Heidegger says that it is true that “[s]uch thought remains indispensable. But – it also remains true that it is thinking of a special kind.” (Discourse on Thinking 45) That is reasoning, rationalization, analysis by concept, logical operation are all part of a particular form of thought, one with presuppositions and operational rules. This is, and has been called, “method”. It operates within a system.  It is the thinking that you are required to do in order to be successful in the TOK course. It is not, however, a universal way of thought. Nor is it the oldest means of thought; human beings of the past did not approach the world in the manner given by Aristotle, but rather human beings (Aristotle, specifically) had to think in this manner after reaching certain conclusions about the world and human nature. For Aristotle, this view came from his understanding and critique of the Greek philosopher Plato.

Martin Heidegger

The kind of thinking we are probably accustomed to is what Heidegger names “calculative thinking”, and it is the thinking proper to the sciences and economics, which we, belonging to the technological age, mainly — if not solely — employ. Calculative thinking, says Heidegger, “calculates,” “plans and investigates” (1966b, p. 46); it sets goals and wants to obtain them. It “serves specific purposes” (ibid., p. 46); it considers and works out many new and always different possibilities to develop. Despite this productivity of a thinking that “races from one aspect to the next”; despite the richness in thinking activities proper to our age, and testified by the many results obtained; despite our age’s extreme reach in research activities and inquiries in many areas; despite all this, nevertheless, Heidegger states that a “growing thoughtlessness” (1966b, p. 45) is in place and needs to be addressed. This thoughtlessness depends on the fact that man is “in flight from thinking” (ibid., p. 45).

 Thoughtlessness”, Heidegger states, “is an uncanny visitor who comes and goes everywhere in today’s world. For nowadays we take in everything in the quickest and cheapest way, only to forget it just as quickly, instantly. Thus one gathering follows on the heels of another. Commemorative celebrations grow poorer and poorer in thought. Commemoration and thoughtlessness are found side by side. (1966b, p. 45)

In the writing on Technology as a Way of Knowing, I have tried to show an example of this by comparing the “making” of the Japanese tea ceremony cup with the ubiquitous Styrofoam cup. The ‘creator’ of the Styrofoam cup, the patent holder, is Dow Chemical, the provider of the funds for Harvard’s “Project Zero”, and they, in turn, provide a number of IB educational institutions with their expertise on “what is called thinking” and are giving the techniques of thinking that will be used in the classrooms of those institutions. What and how are the ends of Dow Chemical, as a corporation, in alignment with the ends of Harvard University and the student learner outcomes in the IB Learner Profile? How do these relate to what is called thinking today?

Calculative thinking, despite being of great importance in our technological world, is a thinking “of a special kind.” It deals, in fact, with circumstances that are already given, and which we take into consideration, to carry out projects or to reach goals that we want to achieve. Calculative thinking does not pause to consider the meaning inherent in “everything that is”. It is always on the move, is restless and it “never collects itself” (Heidegger 1966b, p. 46). This fact, paradoxically, hides and shows that humanity is actually “in flight from thinking.” Now, if it is not a question of calculative thinking, then what kind of thinking does Heidegger refer to when he speaks of another way of thinking that might be possible for human beings? And why, if at all, is there a need for it? A possible answer might be that because we have no problem in understanding the importance of calculative thinking, we probably are not so clear about the need, in our existence, for a different kind of thinking.

 What Heidegger is saying, however, is something else. His thesis is that “reasoning” is not what thought really is. It is not the essence that defines thought. This is not to say that scientific thought is faulty, as Heidegger reiterates again and again. “The significance of science here (in the modern) is ranked higher here than in the traditional views which see in science merely a phenomenon of human civilization.” (What is Called Thinking? 22) How did science come to have this higher ranking?

Another Way of Thinking: “Poetically Man Dwells…”

Heidegger distinguishes from the traditional concept of thought (what he calls calculative thinking) a second form of thinking, ‘poetic’ thinking (meditative, contemplative thinking). Contrary to what it is commonly thought of, ‘poetic’ thinking is not a kind of thinking that is to be found “floating unaware above reality”, losing touch with reality. Nevertheless, the thinking he is proposing “is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs.” (Discourse on Thinking 46) In other writings on this blog I have referred to Simone Weil’s term of “attention” as the form of contemplative thinking that Heidegger has in mind.

In the “Memorial Address,” Heidegger speaks of two kinds of thinking: the above mentioned “calculative thinking” and “‘poetic’ thinking” (1966b, p. 46). ‘Poetic’ thinking is a kind of thinking man is capable of, it is part of his nature; but nevertheless it is a way of thinking that needs to be awoken. When Heidegger states that man is “in flight from thinking” (1966b, p. 45), he means flight from ‘poetic’ thinking. What distinguishes ‘poetic’ thinking from calculative thinking? What does ‘poetic’ thinking mean? It means to notice, to observe, to ponder, to awaken an awareness of what is actually taking place around us and in us. It is a way of being quite different from that which I have described in “Understanding the Shadows in Plato’s Cave” as well as “Darwin/Nietzsche Part IX B” in other areas of this blog.

‘Poetic’ thinking does not mean being detached from reality or, as Heidegger says, “floating unaware above reality” (1966b, p. 46). It is also inappropriate to consider it as a useless kind of thinking by stating that it is of no use in practical affairs or in business. These considerations, Heidegger states, are just “excuses” that, if on the one hand appear to legitimize avoiding any engagement with this kind of thinking, on the other hand attests that ‘poetic’ thinking “does not just happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking” (1966b, p. 46-47). ‘Poetic’ thinking requires effort, commitment, determination, care, practice, but at the same time, it must “be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen” (Heidegger 1966b, p. 47).

‘Poetic’ thinking does not estrange us from reality. On the contrary, it keeps us extremely focused on our reality, on the essentials of our being, ‘existence’. To enact ‘poetic’ thinking, Heidegger says that we need to:

dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history. (1966b, p. 47)

Even though “man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being” we need to train (“educate”) ourselves in the ability to think ‘poetically’, to look at reality, and thus ourselves, in a ‘poetic’ way. The cost of not doing so would be, Heidegger states, to remain a “defenseless and perplexed victim at the mercy of the irresistible superior power of technology” (ibid., p. 52-53). We would be – and today, more so than sixty years ago, when Heidegger gave this speech – victims of “radio and television,” “picture magazines” and “movies”; we would be “chained” to the imaginary world proposed by these mediums, and thus homeless in our own home. It is fairly clear that Heidegger has Plato’s allegory of the Cave in mind here. Heidegger further states:

all that with which modern techniques of communication stimulate, assail, and drive man – all that is already much closer to man today than his fields around his farmstead, closer than the sky over the earth, closer than the change from night to day… (Heidegger 1966b, p. 48)

It is very easy to see how much further from the openness around us we are when we are dwellers in our cities or see ourselves as avatars in virtual worlds on our computers given the pastoral description that Heidegger provides here.

If we view our current thinking in the light of Plato’s Cave, we can see that the risk for humanity in our current approach to thinking is to be uprooted not only from our reality, from our world, but also from ourselves and from our natures as human beings. If we think ‘poetically’, however, we allow ourselves to be aware of the risk implied in the technological age and its usefulness and we can, hence, act upon it. We can experience some of the freedom which is spoken about in Plato’s allegory when we are brought out into the Open where the light of the Sun shines and things are shown to us in their own being as they really are.

 When we think ‘poetically’ we do not project an idea, planning a goal towards which we move, we do not “run down a one-track course of ideas” (ibid., p. 53). When we think ‘poetically’, we need to “engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all” (ibid, p.53). In order to understand what this means, think of the comportment (disposition) we have towards technological devices. We recognize that in today’s world technological machineries and devices are indispensable. We need just  think of computers and hand phones and their usage in our daily life’s activities to be convinced, beyond any doubt, that “we depend on technical devices” (Heidegger 1966 b, p.53). By thinking calculatively, we use these machineries and devices at our own convenience; we also let ourselves be challenged by them, so as to develop new devices that would be more suitable for a certain project or more accurate in the carrying out of certain research. (Think of the “madness” that usually occurs regarding the release of Apple’s latest IPhone or IPod.) We even allow our language to be determined by the machines and devices that we use (see Language as a WOK).

If calculative thinking does not think beyond the usefulness of what it engages with, ‘poetic’ thinking, on the other hand, would notice and become aware of the fact that these devices are not just extremely useful to us. It would also notice that they, by being so extremely useful, are at the same time “shackling” us: “suddenly and unaware we find ourselves so firmly shackled to these technical devices that we fall into bondage to them” (ibid., p. 53-54). If human beings, not being aware of this, are in a situation of being chained to their technological devices and tools, then by becoming conscious of this they find themselves in a different relation to them. They can become free of them. With this awareness human beings can utilize these instruments just as instruments, being at the same time free to “let go of them at any time” (ibid., p. 54). And this is so because once we acknowledge that their usefulness implies the possibility for us to be chained to them, we deal with them differently; we “deny them the right to dominate us, and so to wrap, confuse, and lay waste our nature” (ibid., p.54). It is a matter of a different comportment (disposition) towards them; it is a different disposition to which Heidegger gives the name “releasement toward things” or “detachment” from the things (ibid, p.54). This “releasement” and “detachment” means an “openness” or “availability” to what-is so as to allow that which is to be present in its mystery and uncertainty. (See Plato’s Cave and the “openness” required to view the beauty of the forms and ideas in their “outward appearance” on the outside of the Cave.)

“Releasement” toward things is an expression of a change in thinking and, like Plato’s prisoners in the Cave, a change in their being in the world. Thinking is not just calculation, but ponders the meaning involved and hidden behind what we are related to and engaged with. This hiddenness, even if it remains obscure, is nevertheless detected – by a meditating thinking – in its presence, a presence that “hides itself.” But, as Heidegger states:

if we explicitly and continuously heed the fact that such hidden meaning touches us everywhere in the world of technology, we stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery. I call the comportment which enables us to keep open to the meaning hidden in technology, openness to the mystery. (1966b, p. 55)

“Releasement towards things” and “openness to the mystery” are two aspects of the same disposition, a disposition that allows us to inhabit the world “in a totally different way.” But as we already mentioned, this disposition does not just happen to us. It develops through a “persistent courageous thinking” (ibid., p. 56), which is ‘poetic’ thinking.

The traditional concept of thinking intends thinking as a representing, and therefore as belonging to the context of willing (action). It is still involved with a subjectivism. Subjectivism is “setting up the thinking ‘subject’ as the highest principle of Being, and subordinating everything to the dictates and demands of the subject” (See Reason as a WOK, particularly the thoughts on Descartes). It is what we have come to call “humanism”.

Probably when we hear the word “acting” we immediately relate it to a familiar concept of action, such as the one that thinks of action as that which produces some kind of result, which means that we understand action in terms of cause and effect. To understand what Heidegger means by “higher acting,” we need to refer to the essential meaning that, according to Heidegger, pertains to ‘action’.

In the “Letter on Humanism” (1998b), Heidegger defines the essence of action as “accomplishment”, and he unfolds the meaning of accomplishment as “to unfold something into the fullness of its essence, to lead it forth into this fullness – producere” (1998b, p. 239). “Higher acting” is not, therefore, an undertaking towards a practical doing, but is a ‘higher’ acting as accomplishment, in the sense of leading forth of some thing into the fullness of its essence.

Releasement itself is what makes this available to man. For Heidegger, “higher acting” remains a techne, but it is “making”, a producing or accomplishing, that is more of a poiesis (poetry, for lack of better word) than the cheap, quick making of our production lines such as we find in the production of the Styrofoam cup. In poiesis, human beings allow something to be in its mystery while at the same time bringing forth of that ‘some thing’ from out of the hiddenness in which it once resided.

Heidegger’s ‘poetic’ thinking is contrasted with the thinking that is present in Aristotle’s four causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the final cause and the sufficient cause.

The conventional view of perception is what is called “representational”. Representation “places before us what is typical of a tree, of a pitcher, of a bowl . . . as that view into which we look when one thing confronts us in the appearance of a tree, . . .” (Discourse on Thinking 63) Objects are there; they are perceived in both their form and idea (the mathematical as something which can be known).

Heidegger does not think of perception in this manner. Heidegger also includes something called horizon (time), which is, in keeping with the definition, the horizon or limits of that which we perceive (space). Objects are within a horizon, but we do not place them there; rather they “come out of this (openness of the horizon) to meet us.” (Discourse on Thinking 64) For Heidegger, “the Open” that we discussed as outside of Plato’s Cave is that area or realm in which objects can be perceived.

Rather than actively search out objects to represent, or passively allowing things to enter into our sense experience, Heidegger believes that we have a sort of “active reception,” where that which is present “comes out to meet us.” The proper state towards that which is perceived is called “unconcealment”; thinking is “in-dwelling in unconcealment to that-which-regions.” (Discourse on Thinking 82) For Heidegger, this thinking is not a “grasping” or an “apprehending” but a “releasement” that allows the thing to be in its being as what it is in the “Openness” of the horizon of its being. If we think of Heidegger’s “Open” as the region outside of the Cave, we will be close to what Heidegger means by this term (but it should be remembered that for Heidegger, the Cave is our “home”). Whereas Plato emphasizes the “open” as that region outside of the Cave, and thus focuses on “space”, Heidegger’s focus is more on Time as the region where the “Being of beings” is “sighted”.

Our conventional thinking is an “active doing” whose purpose is to “change” or to “apprehend” what is in being and to make it a part of our “standing reserve” or as some thing disposable for our use at a later time. Heidegger’s thinking is more related to the Vedanta ananda or “bliss” as being in thinking itself.

What Calls for Thinking:

We cannot properly address the question What Is Called Thinking? without answering the question What Calls For thinking? This distinction between the two questions and the priority given to “what calls for thinking” over “what is called thinking” will be the focus of these discussions on thinking, and this will focus on “rationality” as what has come to be called thinking.

According to Heidegger, one is not thinking if one does not rank the objects of thought in terms of thought-worthiness. This point flies in the face of many contemporary accounts of rationality, for they suggest that one can be thinking well as long as one is following the right method. The emphasis today is on the method of what is called thinking. What one thinks about does not provide the standard for the role of such “ratio-inspired” accounts of thinking (see below for the contrast to legein-inspired or language-inspired models); indeed, critical thinking has come to mean critical whatever method-following thinking instead of critical whatever essential thinking. Heidegger’s point is that such means-end accounts involve and indeed propagate a distortion; a life spent rationally researching the history of administrative memos and emails is not a thoughtful life.  In rationally pursuing anything and everything we are not thinking.

Meta-analysis, meta-cognition, meta-linguistics and all other “meta”-prefixed approaches to thinking remain in the realm of “method” thinking and need to be contrasted with “logos” thinking. This is because these “meta” forms of thinking remain in the realm of the traditional thinking of Western “metaphysics”.

You will notice in many of your classes that you are encouraged to become “inquirers”. This is an attempt to re-introduce philosophy of some kind into the curriculum. The philosopher differs from the chess player, biologist, and politician in that the philosopher’s calling is to think about thinking as such. Moreover, to think philosophically about thinking, is to come to a confrontation with a mode of existing–“being-thoughtful”–and thereby with Being and how you stand in Being.

The Greek experience of thinking was grounded on a link between thinking and Being. This link is present in the earliest Greek thinking and carries over into the works of Plato and Aristotle. With Socrates in particular one catches the notion that built into thinking was a directedness towards order (particularly order within one’s self), goodness, beauty, truth, and Being.  Aristotle’s remarks on God and nature also underline this link. It is more revealing, Aristotle holds, to consider the relation between God and the world in terms of God as idea rather than God as creator or cause. God as idea can explain the striving of natural substances; the acorn seeks to become an oak, and thereby reproduce, and thereby the acorn mimics God’s eternality. In the same way, the human infant is on its way to becoming a thinking being, and so the human’s telos (purpose) is to mimic the highest being’s thinking. Moreover, Aristotle wonders what God would think about, and concludes that thought thinking thought is the only befitting topic for the most divine activity. The philosopher par excellence thus mimics the highest being (God) not only by thinking, but also by thinking about thinking.

What calls for thinking in our time? What is it that you should think about to be “educated”? The present age is the technological age, the age in which brain currents are recorded but the beauty of a tree in bloom is forgotten. What is thought-provoking about our time? Heidegger claims that what is thought-provoking about our time is that we are still not thinking. But what is it about our time that explains why we are still not thinking?

Heidegger diagnoses this age as the time of nihilism. The dominant characteristic of our time, then, is the forgetting or withdrawal of Being, and it is this that explains why we are still not thinking–even as we attempt to mimic intelligence via computer programs or connectionist (social) networks. We call to mind that in the allegory of Plato’s cave, “beauty” and “truth” must be “apprehended” as they will slip into “forgetfulness” or “forgottenness”. Our focus is on a “beauty” that withdraws (the physical appearance; the beauty in the “eye of the beholder”) the beauty that is “subjective” and belongs to the “subject” rather than on the Beauty that presences right before our very eyes in all that is in Being.

We are more distant from Being because the experience of thinking–in our technological age–has been shrunk to that of using a tool to operate within an already-fixed network of ends. This age, in other words, is more thought-provoking because in it ratio has triumphed over legein; thinking has become so severed from the being-thoughtful that the thoughtful being is in danger of being entirely eclipsed. This triumph of ratiocination is discussed further in imagination as a way of knowing.

We are still not thinking–despite Plato’s directive–because we have missed the object and source of thinking—Being, that thinking which occurs in the region of the “Open” outside of the Cave. We will continue to miss this thinking as long as we merely use thinking and do not dwell as thoughtful. All genuine thinking arises from and returns back to thoughtful existence; “thinking” that is not so anchored is homeless “thinking”, e.g., calculating, computing, or even reasoning, or all of the “meta” approaches to thinking that were mentioned earlier. This thinking floats on a great sea of nihilism. Thoughtful dwelling in the region of the “Open” is the existential ground of thinking; in such a mode we can hear what calls for thought.

The loss of thoughtful dwelling can be “remembered” by looking back to the Greek thinking experience in order to recover that which has been lost in the translation of the Greek legein into the Latin ratio. Legein carries with it two significations that are not preserved by the Latin ratio: thinking as speaking and thinking as gathering. Thinking moved from that which is bound in sense perception as a way of knowing to thinking that thinks in language as a way of knowing is the direction for thought. But how is this change in direction to be achieved?

Thinking as speaking, as language. Being calls for thinking, i.e., for articulation, and thus to let Being be in language is thinking. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, for example, houses the carefree Being of playing children. The language of thinking plays a crucial role. That we are not thinking because we are not “mindful” of the language of thinking can be seen in how our technology is taking over the role of language in our being. A full elaboration of this idea is impossible here, but the claim, roughly, is that to be thoughtful is to exist as authentically immersed in language.

To begin, “the language of thinking”… all of these phrases can be taken either in the subjective or objective genitive, and those are possibilities on which we should reflect in our thinking. The phrase, “the idea of God”, for example, can mean “God’s idea” in the subjective genitive and “the idea about God” in the objective genitive. In like manner the phrase “the language of thinking” means “thinking’s language” or “the language found in thinking” in the subjective genitive and “language about thinking” in the objective genitive. The difference, then, is between the language found in thinking generally and the language found in thinking about thinking.

Thinking as gathering. Legein signifies gathering and the gathered. Thinking demands…that we engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all.

Thinking is the gathering of that which calls to be gathered–the modes of our existence and Being as such. Thinking can begin when we hear that which calls for thinking:

Joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought…if only we do not reject the gift by regarding everything that is joyful, beautiful, and gracious as the kind of thing which should be left to feeling and experience, and kept out of the winds of thought. Only after we have let ourselves become involved with the mysterious and gracious things as those which properly give food for thought, only then can we take thought also of how we should regard the malice of evil. (Heidegger: What is Called Thinking? P. 31)

Thinking, then, is not so much a matter of being an expert or technician in a field–even if the field be philosophy–as it is being responsive to the various ways of being of who we are, and this points to the disposition of “being thoughtful” as the ground of thinking.

We may now state some conclusions about thinking:

  1. Those who take as the object of their theories a purely mental activity, “thinking”, are missing the richest part of the phenomenon: being-thoughtful.
  2. Being-thoughtful is not essentially a mental activity; it is rather the encounter with Being (the manifesting of meaning which occurs in the ‘showing’ through the beautiful).
  3. Means-end analyses sever thinking from its existential ground; one can be “means-end” rational and yet not thoughtful (and this is the thinking which occurs in the technological world view of logical positivism, the language of algorithms).
  4. Receptivity is the distinguishing mark of thoughtful being; the mastering thinking of the human sciences and the natural sciences in their demanding stance towards being and beings do not think; Nietzsche, who stated that what characterizes contemporary science is the victory of scientific method over science, the victory of method over thought.

Thinking and Language:

What is it that is named in “thinking”, “think”, “thought”? The Old English ​thencan, ​​to think, and ​thancian, to thank, are closely related; the Old English noun for thought is thanc ​or thonc–a thought, a grateful thought, and the expression of such a thought; today it survives in the plural “thanks”. ​The “thanc”, that which is thought; the thought implies thanks.

Blaise Pascal

Is thinking a giving of thanks? Or do the thanks consist in thinking? What does thinking mean here? “Thought” to us today usually means an idea, a view, an opinion or a notion. Pascal, the French mathematician and contemporary of Descartes, in his journals given to us as Pensees, ​​searched for a type of “thinking of the heart” that was in conscious opposition to the mathematical thinking prevalent in his day. Thought, in the sense of logical-rational representations (concepts), was thought to be a reduction and impoverishment of the word “thinking”. Thinking is the giving of thanks for the lasting gift which is given to us: our essential nature as human beings, which we are gifted through and by thinking for being what we essentially are.​ I have called this love in other sections of this blog.

“The gathering of thinking back into what must be thought is what we call the memory”. (Heidegger).

Today, some perceive that the task facing thinking is the overcoming of what is now described as its weaknesses:

  1. Thinking does not bring knowledge as do the sciences;
  2. Thinking does not produce usable practical wisdom;
  3. Thinking solves no cosmic riddles;
  4. Thinking does not endow (or empower) us directly with the power to act.

These observations of thinking’s weaknesses overrate and overtax thinking.

The question “What is called thinking?” can be asked in four ways:

  1. What is designated by the word “thinking”?
  2. What does the prevailing theory of thought, namely logic, understand by thinking?
  3. What are the prerequisites we need to perform thinking rightly?
  4. What is it that commands us to think?

A Brief History of What is called thinking:

​We can begin to answer question #2 above, what and why the prevailing theory of thought has determined thinking to be logic, by examining the titles of the major works of Rene Descartes. His first work is entitled Rules for the Direction of Mindthe second is entitled Meditations on First Philosophy; and the third is called Discourse on Method. ​These works describe the path of the grounding of what is called thinking today. Further discussion is available on What is Knowledge?



—— (1966a). Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking. In: Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper and Row.

—— (1966b). Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper and Row.

——(1968). What is Called Thinking?. Trans. J. Glenn Gray. New York. Harper and Row.


Personal Knowledge: Language as a WOK

Personal Knowledge: Language as a Way of Knowing:

“Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself.”—Wittgenstein

“Language is the house of Being. In its home humans dwell.”—Heidegger “Letter on Humanism”

“‘En arche ‘en ‘o Logos” (“In the beginning was the Word”)—John 1:1

“…we ourselves no longer have the power to trust that the word is the essential foundation of all relations to beings as such.”—Heidegger: “Aristotle’s Physics” 

Language is probably the most important theme of 20th century philosophy and will be of the philosophy that moves into the 21st century. Why this has come to be the case will be the outline of these writings on language as a WOK.

The very essence of what we are as human beings, our ontology, our being-in-the-world is contained in our language and in our relation to and understanding of language. To understand language is to contrast instruction with teaching; and to do so is to recognize that the teaching in TOK is to be characterized as “useless” and it must be “useless” in order to allow true learning and teaching to happen.  To reflect on the issue of “uselessness” and “usefulness” is to connect these seemingly  irrelevant themes to the status of education in our modern technological age and what we think education is today.  In order to begin this reflection, we must think upon language and rethink language.

The rethinking of language takes place from and within the rethinking of technology. The relation between technology and language is crucial for a rethinking of language in our modern technological age. It is therefore necessary to talk about the technological language, which defines “a language that is technologically determined by what is most peculiar to technology,” that is, by framing (or “positioning” or enframing). It is imperative that we ask what is language and in what special way it remains exposed to the dictates of technology. Such imperatives to our thinking about language are only met in the rethinking of the current conception of language that we might characterize in the following way:

Personal/Shared Knowledge Background:

Today we think speech is: (1) a faculty, an activity and achievement of humans. It is: (2) the operation of the instruments for communication and hearing. Speech is: (3) the expression and communication of emotions accompanied by thoughts (dispositions) in the service of “information”. Speech is: (4) a representing and portraying (picturing, the making of pictures) of the real and unreal.

The traditional metaphysical connection of subject “the things” + predicate “the qualities of the things”, the categories, between language and thinking that we have seen in our discussions of Reason as a Way of Knowing defines language in terms of thinking. Thinking is the human activity of representing objects in this view, and thus language has been seen as a means for conveying information about objects. “In-form-ation” results from our providing a “form” in order to “inform” regarding what we call “data”. This is what we call “classification”, a providing of definitions or the limits and horizons of things. Traditional metaphysics places thinking as “reason” (reason, “logic” which has its root in “logos”) as the determining factor (the “-ation” or “atia” in Greek,  “that which is responsible for”) in the relation between language and thinking. Reason provides the “form” so that the data (the content) can be structured so that it may “inform”. This is shown in our current conception of language as an “instrument of expression” in the “service of thinking”. The common view believes that thought uses language merely as its “medium” or a means of expression. Thought is seen as logic, reason in this view.

We assume that language is a tool used by human beings to communicate information. We think that the same fact can be expressed in many different languages. We think a competent speaker is in control of language and can use it efficiently to convey data to his/her audience. In the quest for efficiency in communication, we have devised artificial languages that give us more control over language. Symbolic logic, computer programming languages, and the technical languages of the sciences are set up as systems in which each sign can be interpreted in only one way. Each sign points clearly to what it represents so that the sign itself becomes completely unobtrusive. The perfect language in this view is a technique for perfect representation.

Martin Heidegger

There are two major schools of thought on language as a WOK: the “structuralist” or “analytical” school which has been described up to now, and the “continental” school. The “continental” school’s foremost representative is Martin Heidegger: “Language is the house of being. In its home humans dwell” is a quote that captures Heidegger’s understanding of language. But what does the quote mean? How is language a “house” and how through its use does it create a “home”?

The conception of language as a mere means of exchange of information undergoes an extreme transformation in our modern technological age that is expressed in the definition of language as “information”. The analytic school of thought on language offers a prime example of a “metaphysical-technological explanation” of language stemming from the “calculative frame of mind.” This view believes that thinking and speaking are “exhausted by theoretical and natural-scientific representation and statements,” and that they “refer to objects and only to objects.” Language, as a tool of “scientific-technological knowing”–which “must establish its theme (thesis, theory) in advance as a calculable, causally explicable framework”– is “only an instrument that we employ to manipulate objects.” We refer to this as an algorithm: the world is looked upon as a calculable, causal framework that gives us a problem that must be solved.

Think of this in terms of our computers and our other tools of “information technology”, particularly the speed reading technologies and applications that are becoming available: the principle of reason must establish the “frame” or “position” in advance so that data can be controlled through calculation in order to inform. This frame transform the manner in which things are approached.

Heidegger notes the influence and understanding of language by analytic philosophy in our modern technological age in the following way:

Of late, the scientific and philosophical investigation of languages is aiming more resolutely at the production of what is called “metalanguage.” Analytic philosophy, which is set on producing this super-language, is quite consistent when it considers itself metalinguistics. That sounds like metaphysics -not only sounds like it, it is metaphysics. Metalinguistics is the thoroughgoing technicalization of all languages into the sole operative instrument of interplanetary information. Metalanguage and sputnik, metalinguistics and rocketry are the Same.

Heidegger is speaking this in the late 1950s, but the connection to today’s information technology illustrates the truth of his statement. Given the logical bent of analytical philosophy, the modern mathematical and symbolic logic or “Logistik” is metaphysics. Logistics was for Heidegger the “unbroken rule of metaphysics” establishing itself everywhere; and modern epistemology (theories of knowledge) acquire a “decisive position of dominance.”  It was a matter of grave concern for Heidegger to see that logistics was being considered everywhere “the only possible form of strict philosophy” on the grounds that its procedures and results are deemed productive for what he called “the construction of the technological universe.” (Have a look at the etymological roots of “logistics” on This must be thought about in relation to what we understand as “artificial intelligence” of AI: how does or will our understanding of what reason and language are determine the nature of what is called “artificial intelligence” and of the machines that will use it?

Heidegger’s negative characterizations of logistics abound: It is a “logical degeneration” of traditional categorical logic of Aristotle, and its development is a sign of the “decay of philosophy,” an indication of its “dissolution” and “completion.” At another point, Heidegger states: “Technique is the metaphysic of the age.”

Language and Concepts:

How does language determine what we call our “key concepts”, the manner in which we are to approach our personal and shared knowledge? If we think about what we call “dead” languages for a moment, we will notice that they are called “dead” because they are no longer subject to changes in meaning. Any “living” language will have changes in meaning and interpretation according to the historical time in which it occurs. As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”

Our modern attempts to fixate language into an unambiguous tool for communicating information and representing beings/things illustrates our desire to fulfill the revealing of truth as representation, to follow the correspondence theory of truth and the principle of reason. There is “truth” (according to Heidegger), but how we understand what this truth is is relative to the historical situation in which it occurs; it is not a “subjective” truth, but a communal truth: that is, it is not based on personal knowledge but is the knowledge that we all share. In our current situation, this is the global “revealing” through technology and this revealing drives us to realize the “global village” or “internationalism”. The “system” which results from the “framing” that is the technological requires no individual thinker or thinking. In science, time and place are not important and scientists from disparate locations can carry out their work with the certainty that their “accounts” will be correct when properly following the method established within the framing. This is because the language which they use is fixated.

If Heidegger is correct, the same fact cannot be expressed in many different languages because beings and “information” present themselves differently according to different cultural contexts. The quest for a universal, unambiguous language can only succeed in creating stillborn languages. These languages are locked into a particular interpretation of the world and the things in it (representational revealing) and are incapable of responding creatively to new experiences. Artificial languages (and one might say artificial intelligence since it will be based on these languages) are not more “objective” than natural languages—they are just narrower and more rigid because their goal is certainty and efficiency.

Language cannot be merely a tool that we use because we can control it: we owe our own Human Being to language. Language is fundamental to the revelation of the world; it is an essential part of what enables us to be someone, to be a human being and notice things in the world in the first place. Language has the power to reveal our world and transform our existence. But the lucid and creative moments are few both in individuals and in societies; the rest is inauthentic and derivative. Everyday “idle talk” is a pale, dull reflection of “creative meanings” that are first revealed and achieved in poetry.

Language as Representation:


Where does the understanding of language as representation come from? As the “doctrine of the logos” in Aristotle is interpreted as assertion or statement, logic is the doctrine of thinking and the science of statement (or the making of statements—propositions, the creation of “pictures”), that is, logic (the principle of reason) provides the authoritative interpretations of thinking and speaking that rule throughout the technological. More specifically, logistics has as its basis the modern interpretation of the statement or assertion as the “connection of representations” (the correspondence and coherence theories of truth).  It is in this sense that Heidegger regards it as another manifestation of the “unchecked power of modern thinking” itself.  Heidegger depicts the connections between logic and modern technology in very dramatic tones:

Without the legein (the saying) of [Western] logic, modern man would have to make do without his automobile. There would be no airplanes, no turbines, no Atomic Energy Commission. Without the logos, of logic, the world would look different.

The general form of modern metaphysical thinking is thus a “scientific-technological manner of thinking.” This thinking, this world-picture, threatens to “spread to all realms” thereby magnifying the “deceptive appearance which makes all thinking and speaking seem objectifying.” This thinking and speaking finds its full realization in algebraic calculation. It is this form of objectifying thinking that strives to “represent everything henceforth only technologically-scientifically as an object of possible control and manipulation.” With it, language itself takes a corresponding form: it becomes “deformed into an instrument of reportage and calculable information”. However, while the form that language takes is thus instrumental, in such a form of thinking, language itself exerts its own influence insofar as it is “treated like a manipulable object to which our manner of thinking must conform.” Language itself allows itself to be treated in such a way. Language and reason as WOKs are, in the end, inseparable. They allow themselves to create our box, what we call our “mindset”.

The traditional metaphysical manner of thinking in our age is a “one-track thinking,” (in Heidegger’s words) and this ‘one track’ can be understood and associated with technology.  It is a “one-sided thinking” that tends towards a “one-sided uniform view” in which “[everything] is leveled to one level,” and “[our] minds hold views on all and everything, and view all things in the same way.” Our manner of thinking is the box.  (*A link can be made to the uniformity of our understanding of number and its correspondence to Newton’s view of the uniformity of matter in the AOKs Mathematics and Natural Sciences.)

There is a kind of language that, as the expression of this form of thinking, is itself one-tracked and one-sided. One “symptom” of the growing power of the technological form of thinking is in our increased use of designations consisting of abbreviations of words or combinations of their initials. Our text messaging and our love of acronyms is a technological form of language in the sense that these herald the ordering in which everything is reduced to the univocity of concepts and precise specifications. This reduction and ordering also leads us to view all activities we engage in to be leveled to one level: the student who is asked to create a work of art either in words or other media, sees their activity as nothing more than their being in a shopping mall or at a supermarket. The activity ceases to have any priority in importance. In this view, “speed reading” will come to flourish since we cannot learn from texts anything other than “information” and this learning must be done as “efficiently” as possible.

Such interpretations are the “technological”; they are a given only “insofar as technology is itself understood as a means and everything is conceived only according to this respect (technology understood as “tools”).” If our way of thinking is one that values only that which is immediately useful, then language is only conceived and appreciated from this perspective of its usefulness for us. More importantly, this suggests it is the essence of technology as framing that somehow determines the “transformation of language into mere information.” We refer to this framing  of information as “the box” that inhibits our thinking.

If the essence of modern technology is framing, then there is also a “language of framing.” (See the unit on Technology as a WOK for an understanding of the concept of “framing”).

[All] ordering finds itself channeled into calculative thinking and therefore speaks the language of framing. Speaking is challenged to correspond in every respect to framing in which all present beings can be commandeered. –Heidegger

It is within framing (the “form”, the “position”), then, that “speaking turns into information.”

Computer_thumbWe can look at the computer as one manner in which modern technology controls the mode and the world of language as such.  We can infer that the computer is one crucial way in which this language of framing speaks.

“To compute”, obviously, means to calculate. With the construction of artificial intelligence, calculating, thinking and translating machines, speed reading applications, the computer is made possible insofar as its activities take place in the element of language. The term “computer” should not be taken as merely talking about calculators and computers. Machine technology itself is “the most visible outgrowth of the essence of modern technology” (Heidegger) and that ours is the age of the machine (and the Age of Information) is due to the fact that it is the technological age, and not vice versa.  More importantly, framing (the form) itself is not anything technological in the sense of mechanical parts and their assembly. In TOK we wish to explore our “key concepts” and language within a “knowledge framework”. Thus, the language of framing cannot itself be reduced to anything technological in this narrow sense. The computer intrudes by regulating and adjusting through its hardware and software and their functions how we can and do use language. Think of our smart phones and other assemblages that are linked to our computers and the manner of their linkages and how they assemble information and how this information must be assembled if it is to be communicated.

If there is a transformation of language in the computer that speaks the language of framing, then the question is what is the essence of language itself that it allows for its transformation into a technological language, into information? The essence of language is defined from the essence of language: It is a Saying that shows, in the sense of letting-appear. The possibility of a technological language lies here, for it is itself a Saying-Showing that is limited to the mere making of signs for the communication of information. Let us now examine some of the historical background for this development of language.

Historical Background of Language as Representation:

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

St. Augustine in his autobiography Confessions gives us the common understanding of how language comes about:

When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.  Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something.  Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires. (Augustine, Confessions, I. 8)

Here, Augustine speaks of language as “signs”.  They are a “pointing out”, a “directing of the gaze or glance” and from them, the thing that is pointed out comes to stand for us as what it is in the saying so given and becomes “grasped” or “captured” by us. But notice that in Augustine’s description there are a number of steps involved in the “grasping” of the thing that is “pointed out”. First there is the pointing, then there is the bodily movement, then there is the sound uttered, then there is the notice of the “disposition” made when the sound is uttered, and all of this occurs within a social context; there is the “dialogue”. From this follows the “grammatical” structure of language, “the placing of the signs in their proper places in various sentences” which allows one to “express their own desires”.

Augustine is speaking of language as “representational”: the picture created is a word or a sign that stands for or represents a thing by virtue of that word or sign’s meaning. Each word means just one thing, and it does so by virtue of a meaning that we can think of or understand.  Language is, then, the communication of meanings from one person to another in the package of a sign: to communicate with you, I “frame” my intended meaning within the appropriate sign, and then give you the sign in speech or writing, whereupon you “decode” (interpret) it again, supplying the meaning for the sign I have given from within the same frame.  To speak language, then, is to imbue dead signs with life, to breathe air into the otherwise mute forms of signs.  Language is thought of as the breath of life animating lifeless form; language is the soul of meaning infusing and animating the bodies of signs.   Hence Aristotle discusses language as the “showing” of the soul’s “dispositions”:

Now, whatever it is [that transpires] in the creation of sound by the voice is a showing of whatever dispositions there may be in the soul, and the written is a showing of the sounds of the voice.  Hence, just as writing is not identical among all [human beings], so too the sounds of the voice are not identical.  However, that of which these [sounds and writing] are in the first place a showing are among all [human beings] the identical dispositions of the soul; and the matters of which these [dispositions] form approximating presentations (pictures) are likewise identical. 

Aristotle construes language as a kind of showing (in pictures), but taken in the view of the history of Western metaphysics that we have outlined in our writing on “Reason as a Way of Knowing”, Aristotle’s pictures imply that language is a mere instrument (tool) for the expression of inner intentions or thoughts (dispositions).  Within the tradition of Western thinking, this picture will imply that the relationship between signs and the thoughts they express is purely arbitrary, or to use the term favored by logical positivist philosophers, “conventional”; language is a system of arbitrary correlations (conventions) of signs to common meanings. Notice, though, that Aristotle insists that the “dispositions” themselves are the identical common meanings.

It is important to note here that Plato wrote “dialogues”; Aristotle wrote treatises. If one reads Plato’s dialogues in the same manner as one reads an Aristotelian treatise, one will fail to understand the dialogue. This reading of Plato in the same manner that we read Aristotle is one of the fates that have befallen us within the English-speaking community. British and American thinkers of previous generations read Plato as if they were reading a treatise of Aristotle.

The traditional picture of language found in Augustine, Aristotle, and the logical positivists, also has deep connections with the metaphysics of “subjectivity” (Descartes, Kant) that we have discussed in our understanding of “Reason as a Way of Knowing”.  In this traditional picture, the sign stands for an object (subjectum), but it is also the sign for a concept or image in the speaker’s mind (the frame).  The concept, or mental image, is a representation in the speaker’s mind or brain.  Even though we can exchange signs in communication, we can never be sure, in the traditional picture, that we are successful in communicating the mental representations, concepts, or images that go with them (the predicates).  The connection between a particular sign and the mental image that it evokes is the connection (or lack thereof) between something public and communicable, and something essentially private and incommunicable. Mathematics as “symbolic language” or “signs” overcomes this sense of arbitrariness in the public realm and is one of the reasons for its dominance in the realm of what can be called “knowledge”.

How can we rethink language and meaning, outside the traditional picture, in a way that reveals its essence as a showing (aletheia), rather than portraying it as a conventional correlation of signs to meanings, a mere instrument for the expression and communication of thoughts and dispositions?  To rethink the essence of language, we must attempt to “bring language as language to language.”  But how is this to be done?

To recapitulate: in the traditional view, language turns out to be “the eternally self-repeating labor of spirit to make articulated sound capable of being an expression of thought.” Language is what humans do to make sound able to express thought: it is the infusion of articulated sound with the spirit of meaning or intention.  It is an action. This way of “bringing language to language,” this labor of the spirit, the infusing of sound with meaning, has been the intellectual development of mankind.  But because it construes language as a human doing, as a labor of soul upon body, this traditional way of thinking of language remains trapped within the metaphysics of our age and fails to reveal the essence of language. According to Heidegger: “[this] way to language goes in the direction of man, passing though language on its way to something else: the demonstration and depiction of the intellectual development of the human race.” Heidegger continues:

“However, the essence of language conceived in terms of such a view does not of itself show language in its essence: it does not show the way in which language essentially unfolds as language; that is, the way it comes to stand; that is, the way it remains gathered in what it grants itself on its own as language.”

To determine what language is, we need to determine what pertains to language as language.

We list what pertains to language in order to understand what is essential to language, what is at the root of everything that happens in, and through, language.  One of the things that pertains to language as language is the speaker.  “To speech belong the speakers.”   In speaking, we presence things; we make present the objects of our concern and our common interest by “pointing them out”.

“In speech, the speakers have their presencing.  Where to?  Presencing to the wherewithal (purpose) of their speech, to that by which they linger (the “things” that are present-at-hand), that which in any given situation already matters to them.  Which is to say, their fellow human beings and the things, each in its own way; everything that makes a thing a thing and everything that sets the tone for our relations with our fellows.  All this is referred to, always and everywhere, sometimes in one way, at other times in another.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language”).

What else belongs to the essence of language?  We can run through the things that belong to language – the speaker, what is spoken, also the unspoken – but we do not thereby think their unity.  Their unity, the unity of the essence of language, remains hidden to us. What we are saying here becomes obvious, though hardly pondered in its full scope, when we indicate the following.  To speak to one another means to say something to one another; it implies a mutual showing of something, each person in turn devoting himself or herself to what is shown.  To speak with one another means that together we say something about something, showing one another the sorts of things that are suggested by what is addressed in our discussion, showing one another what the addressed allows to radiate of itself.” To speak, then, is not to talk to someone else; it is to participate in the “saying” (logos) that is a showing.

This “showing”, according to Heidegger, is older and more essential than the definition of language as a system of signs.  “What unfolds essentially in language is saying as pointing.  Its showing does not culminate in a system of signs.  Rather, all signs arise from a showing in whose realm and for whose purposes they can be signs.”  This showing (aletheia) is not simply something that we do, but a self-showing of that which shows (a revealing of what we are as human beings), a manifesting in which language itself speaks.  When we think of language as this self-showing, we can begin to understand it as something to which we ourselves belong and with which we ourselves may come into a more or less direct relationship:

“If speech as listening to language lets itself be told the saying, such letting can be given only insofar – and so near – as our own essence is granted entry into the saying.  We hear it only because we belong to it.  However, the saying grants those who belong to it their listening to language and hence their speech.  Such granting comes-to-stand in the saying; it lets us attain the capacity of speech.  What unfolds essentially in language depends on the saying that grants in this way.”  (Heidegger “The Way to Language”).

When we think language essentially, as a self-manifesting showing that points, we are well on the way to bringing language as language to language.  We experience language, then, as a possibility or a granting, an essence that allows manifestation (aletheia), rather than as something we do, make, or control. Thus, language as the saying (legein, logos) holds its own in the realm of truth. Think of this from your own experiences of when you are in a country in which you have no knowledge of the language. How does the experience of language show itself?

In a world in which language and speaking has become the mere exchange of information,

“the framing…sets upon human beings – that is, challenges them – to order everything that comes to presence into a technical inventory (standing reserve, resources or “disposable”), [and] unfolds essentially after the manner of appropriation (a “grasping” and an “owning”); at the same time, it distorts appropriation, inasmuch as all ordering sees itself committed to calculative thinking and so speaks the language of framing.  Speech is challenged to correspond to the ubiquitous orderability of what is present.  Speech, when posed in this fashion, becomes information.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language).

TOKQuestionAll that remains of language in information is “the abstract form of writing that is transcribed into the formulae of a logic calculus” whose clarity “ensures the possibility of a secure and rapid communication” (our text messaging and our public discourse as media bytes). The principles transforming language are technological-calculative. It is from the technological possibilities of the computer that the instruction (command) is set out as to how language can and shall still be language. Such instruction (command) spells out the absolute and overriding need for the clarity of signs and their sequences; the algorithm dominates. The fact that the computer’s structure conforms to linguistic tasks such as translating (i.e. whether the command/instruction is in Chinese or English does not matter) does not mean that the reverse holds true. For these commands are “in advance and fundamentally bound up” with the computer. With the “inexorability of the limitless reign” of technology, the insatiable technological demand for a technological language, its power increases to the point that the technological language comes to threaten the very essence of language as Saying-Showing. It is “the severest and most menacing attack on what is peculiar to language,” for language is “atrophied” into the mere transmission of signals according to Heidegger.

Weiner Norbert
Norbert Weiner

Moreover, when information (in the form of command) is held as highest form of language on account of its univocity, certainty and speed, then, we have a “corresponding conception” of the human being and of human life. Norbert Wiener, a founder of Cybernetics, said that language “is not an exclusive attribute of man but is one he may share to a certain degree with the machines he has constructed.”  This view is itself possible only when we presuppose that language is merely a means of information. This understanding of language as information represents, at the same time, a “threat to the human being’s ownmost essence.” (Heidegger) The fact that language is interpreted and used as an instrument has lead us into believing that we are the masters of the computer, but the truth of the matter might well be that the computer takes language into its management and masters the essence of the human being creating a fundamental change in human ontology (human being-there-in-the-world).

These assessments of the metaphysical-technological interpretation and form of language are indisputably critical. Why? What is at stake? Why should this be important for us?

The gripping, mastering effect technological language has over our very essence (ontology) makes “the step back out of metaphysics difficult.” (Heidegger) Language itself “denies us its essence” and instead “surrenders itself” to us as our “instrument of domination over beings.” (Heidegger) It is extremely difficult for us in the modern age to even understand a non-instrumental concept of language. The interpretation and form of “language as information” and of “information as language” is, in this sense, a circle determined by language and in language, within “the web of language.” (Heidegger) Hence, Heidegger has referred to language as “the danger of all dangers” that “necessarily conceals in itself a continual danger for itself.”  In fact, “we are the stakes” in the “dangerous game and gamble” that the essence of language plays with us.

Personal Knowledge and Reason

George Grant

“When one contemplates the conquest of nature by technology one must remember that that conquest had to include our own bodies.”—George Grant, “In Defence of North America” (1969)

One of the most common words used today by students in TOK classes is “mindset”, but when asked what exactly this word means the users of the word are at a loss to explain it. It is one of the words that we use without thinking, or hearing.

This writing will attempt to explore the relationship of reason to what we understand as the “key concepts” that determine our “personal knowledge” (which some preclude is the product of a ‘mindset’) and how reason is, actually, the ground of the ‘mindsets’ that we think we have chosen in our “freedom”, or what we call our “empowerment”. How is reason “empowering” and how does it relate to “empowerment” as “enhancement of life”?

When we speak of ‘mindsets’, we are speaking of human cognition, how we think, perceive and understand the world around us, the language and key concepts that we use, and how the manner  or methodology of this thinking, perceiving and understanding has come about from our “shared knowledge” (historical background, social contexts, etc). We shall understand “cognition” as an (intellectual) processing of (intellectual) contents, the contents of which are what we have come to understand as “data” which is then shaped into what we have come to call “information”.

What we call reason as a way of knowing is grounded in the principle of reason: nihil est sine ratione, “nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a reason”. The principle of reason holds that each and every thing that is, no matter what it is or how it is, has a reason for its being as it is. Whatever happens to be actual has a reason for its actuality. Whatever happens to be possible has a reason for its possibility. Whatever happens to be necessary has a reason for its necessity.

We require “reasons” for the assertions that we make in knowledge claims: they provide the answers to our questions “how do I/we know x”; and the answers begin with “be-cause” or “the cause is….” We insist upon a foundation or a ground/cause for every attitude when we explore emotion as a way of knowing and how these emotions shape and determine our human cognition, our processing of the contents of our experiences. It is from within this principle of reason that we determine who among us is sane and who among us is not. In our search for reasons we begin with the immediate reasons for the things in front of us and then proceed to attempt to get to the bottom of, or ground of, the more remote reasons and, finally, ask about the ultimate reason, the “why” of Being, why is there something rather than nothing.

The Lamp of Learning

The principle of reason is ubiquitous in all that we do and it is so because it is “illuminating”, and through this “illumination” it is “empowering”. Nothing happens without a reason: nothing happens without a cause. Every cause is in some way a reason. Not every reason brings about something in the way of causation, however. For example, the universally valid statement “All men are mortal” contains the reason for seeing that Socrates is mortal, but the statement does not bring about, is not the cause for, the fact that Socrates dies. As we shall see, the principle of reason is not the same as the principle of causality; it is broader and encompasses the principle of causality.

The principle of reason requires that reasons must be rendered for all that is. The rendering of reasons is carried out through logos or language as a way of knowing. Logos is any type of rendering; it is not merely that which can be expressed in words. All of your work in the Diploma program is based on the need to render sufficient or satisfactory reasons whether this rendering be in the form of words, mathematical formulae, products or performances. It is a bringing to presence of some thing, and the providing of a sufficient or satisfactory reason for the thing’s presence.

We need to ask and explain three questions that arise from this: 1. how come a reason is always a rendered or given reason? 2. How come a reason must be rendered in the first place, that is, explicitly brought forward? 3. to whom or to what is a reason rendered?

Gottfried Leibniz: The Founder of Finite Calculus

The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz was the first to formulate the principle of reason as a statement and as a principle in the 17th century. He insisted that it was the principle. What does this mean? Why did it take so long in the history of ideas and philosophy for this statement to be uttered and why was it written in Latin by Leibniz?

Leibniz answers our first question with the observation that a reason is a rendered reason “because a truth is only the truth if a reason can be rendered for it.” For Leibniz, truth is always a correct judgement. Judgement is the connection of what is stated with that about which the statement is made. We call this the correspondence theory of truth. As the philosopher Kant stated: “Judgement is the seat of truth”. What Kant’s statement indicates is that which, as the unifying unity of the subject and its predicate, supports their being connected as the basis, the ground of judgement: it gives a justification for the connection. Reason renders an account of the truth of judgement. To render an account in Latin is called ratio. The ground of the truth of judgement is represented as ratio. The first principle for Leibniz is the fundamental principle of rendering reasons. Whether this rendering of the account is in words or numbers is of no matter.

With regard to the second question “how come reasons must be brought forward whatever reasons”, Leibniz says that reason is ratio, that is, an account. If an account is not given, a judgement remains without justification. It lacks evidence of its correctness; it is “subjective”. The judgement itself is not truth. Judgement only becomes truth when the reason for the connection is specified and accounted for, when the ratio, that is, an account, is given. Such a giving of an account is in need of a site (“positionality”) where the account can be delivered and rendered. This site may be as formal as an experiment or an essay or an oral presentation, or it can be as informal as a statement made over coffee and donuts. The rendering of reasons is because reason is ratio, an account. If it is not given, the judgment remains without justification. It lacks the evidence, the support or the ground, for its correctness.

In answer to the third question: to whom or to what must reasons be rendered, the answer is to human beings who determine objects as objects by way of a “representation that judges”. Representation is in Latin representare: to make something present to humans, to present something, to bring something to a presence, to bring it forward.

Rene Descartes

Since Descartes, and later in Leibniz and all modern thinking, human beings experience themselves as an “I” (an ego, a self) that relates to the world such that it renders this world to itself in the form of connections correctly established between its representations—its judgements—and this “I” sets itself over and against this world as to an “object”. Judgements and statements are correct, that means true, only if the reason for the connection of the subject and predicate is rendered, that is, given back to the representing I. A reason is this sort of reason only if it is a ratio or an account that is given about something that is in front of a person as a judging I, and is given to this I. An account is an account only if it is handed over to others.

This handing over of reasons can be experienced in human cognition in the form of works of art either as performances, paintings or language, as discoveries in the sciences through experiment or observation, or the personal experiences that one grasps and possesses through one’s own human cognition. A reason is a reason to be rendered. When the reason for the connection of representations has been directed back and expressly rendered to the I, what is represented first comes to a stand (“positionality”) so that it is securely established as an object, that is, as an object for a representing subject.

But a rendered reason only effects such a bringing-to-a-stand of objects when it gives in a sufficient way an account that is adequate for the secure establishing of objects. The reason rendered must be a ratio sufficiens or a “sufficient reason”. This is the principle behind all assessments in the IB Diploma and in all human cognition in general. It is the ‘mindset’ that demands results which in themselves satisfy the principle of sufficient reason. Doing well or not doing well in your assessments is whether or not you have sufficiently rendered the reasons in securely establishing the object about which you are making assertions.

Leibniz says: “Nothing exists for which the sufficient reason for its existence cannot be rendered.” The reason that demands its being rendered in every judgement about an object at the same time demands that, as a reason, it suffices—which means that it be completely satisfactory as an account. Of and for what? So that in every way and for everyone it can bring an object to stand in the entirety of its stance. The completeness of the reasons to be rendered—perfectio—is what guarantees that something is firmly established—secured in its place—as an object for human cognition. Only the completeness of the account, perfection, vouches for the fact that every cognition everywhere and at all times can include and count on the object and reckon with it. It is the principle of reason that gives security to the woman in Moscow, Idaho and the man in Moscow, Russia that their proceedings in their experiments or their mathematical propositions are correct. “Nothing is without reason”. The principle now says that every thing counts as existing when and only when it has been securely established as a calculable object for cognition. It is from this reckoning and calculability that we have “subjective” and “objective” statements regarding the things that are. “Subjective” statements are denigrated because they lack “reality”, they lack “objectivity”, and they lack this reality and objectivity because they lack sufficient reasons in the accounts of their being as they are.

This distinction between “subjective” and “objective” statements is what Leibniz determined as the “grandness” of the principle of reason. In the thinking of Leibniz, the Principle (here capitalized because it means the “first” or primary) decrees what may count as an object of cognition, or more generally, as a being/thing. What Leibniz is saying here is that human cognition is governed by the principle of reason and is under its power. Cognition becomes Rational and governed by Reason. For over 2000 years, ratio has meant not only an “account” in the sense of that which stands to account for something else, but also ratio means to “account for” in the sense of “vindicating”, of confirming something as being in the right, of correctly figuring something out and securing something through such reckoning or “accounting”. Reckoning is the way humans take up something, deal with it, and take it on; how, in general, human beings perceive something and assess something. Ratio is a manner of perceiving, which means, it is Reason.

Rational cognition follows the principle of reason. Reason first fully develops its essence (what it is) as Reason through the principle of reason. The principle of reason is the fundamental principle of Rational cognition in the sense of a reckoning (an accounting) that securely establishes something. One speaks of rational grounds, of evidence.

Leibniz’s articulation of the principle of reason brings to fruition what we call “modernity”. The principle of reason comes to determine all cognition and behaviour, in other words, our “personal knowledge”. Since Leibniz’s articulation, the principle of reason has embedded itself in our human being and determines the manner in which we, as human beings, are moving forward into the future. But we are not fully aware of how the principle of reason operates in our day-to-day activities.

How do we hear this claim of the principle of reason in the determination of our “mindset”, how we understand our “experiences”? The manner in which the claim of the principle of reason is most heard is in the distinction between “subjective” and “objective” mentioned earlier. Today, we measure what is “great” and what is “grand” only where the principle of reason is authoritative. We see the evidence of the principle of reason in our technology as it drives forward the bringing of its contrivances and products to an all-encompassing greatest possible perfection. Perfection consists in the completeness of the calculably secure establishing of objects, in the completeness of reckoning with them, and with the securing of the calculability of possibilities for reckoning. Our contrivances and products (computers and hand phones, for instance) are not merely instruments, equipment and tools like hammers and pens. The contrivances and products of technology rest on the understanding of the world about us that has become secure in its calculability. This calculability arranges the objects about us so that they are secure and at our disposal; the things about us are turned into data, and from this data into information. It is this securing of the disposability of the objects about us which brings algebraic calculation to its height as the determination of what is considered knowledge in our age. It was Leibniz’ creation of “finite calculus” that helped to initiate the dominance of the principle of reason. This knowledge comes about through the application of method which follows from the principle of reason. That Leibniz was also the inventor of what is called the insurance industry should indicate how his thinking was dominated by the need for security and control over necessity, chance and contingency.

The striving for perfection in our technology is an echo of the demand for perfectio which means here the completeness of a foundation. It is a striving which demands the rendering of sufficient reasons for all that is. Perfection is based on the thoroughgoing calculability of objects. The calculability of objects presupposes the validity of the principle of reason. The authority and security of the results from this calculability of the principle of reason determines the essence of the modern, technological age. (See Werner Heisenberg’s comments on the grounding and outcomes of his indeterminacy principle and its operations in quantum physics).

What role does human freedom play in this ceaseless technological striving for perfection? In our personal knowledge and how we experience our lives, we must come to terms with the distinction between calculative thinking and reflective thinking. We may begin our reflection on why this age is called the “Information Age” in order to illuminate the difference in the forms and ways of being-in-the-world in which human beings are captured and enslaved by the principle of reason. We shall attempt to determine the distinction between the calculative thinking which the principle of reason prescribes and reflective thinking.

The Principle of Reason and Information

How does the principle of reason operate within the “information age”? “Information” is sometimes called knowledge by students in their essays and oral presentations. “In-form-ation” is the bringing of what is encountered to a stand in the “form” in which it can “in-form” or be rendered and handed over. To “inform” is to render an account, to pass on what has been brought to a stand in human cognition as “representational thinking”. We require that this rendering be as quick, comprehensive and bring about results in the most efficient manner possible in order to assist us in securing our necessities, requirements, and satisfactions. We speak of this rendering as “empowerment”, the ability to “make our thinking visible” as representations.  So it is that in our age the representation of language as an instrument of information has come to dominance and shows itself in our attempts to create machines with artificial intelligence and ever bigger, greater, more efficient computing frameworks with capacities for ever larger calculations. These attempts are based on our understanding of “intelligence” as information and contribute to the organizing within the framework that the principle of reason has established for itself.

In order to be passed on or rendered, what is encountered must be “trans-formed” into data so that it can be manipulated and controlled. The suffix “a-tion” comes from the Greek aition, “that which is responsible for” or “that to which something is obliged”, which was interpreted as “cause” by the Latins. In this trans-formation of what is encountered into what is called in-formation, into data, what is encountered ceases to be an “object” for us and only retains its validity, its reality, as long as it retains its sense as data. As data, it ceases to be an independently standing object. The principle of reason requires that all that is encountered is understood as data. Until it is so understood, the thing encountered does not have a “reality” for us; it is not a “fact”. It is “subjective”.

Why this need for everything we encounter to be rendered as “information”? Because in its rendering as “information”, the principle of sufficient reason can hold sway. What is the consequence of seeing and hearing language and speaking as information? Because of this manner of hearing and speaking, the possibility of a thoughtful conversation with a tradition that is considered to be our shared knowledge, a shared knowledge that could invigorate and nurture us, is lacking. Because language has been consigned to information, reflective thinking is pushed aside and is considered as something useless and superfluous.

It is to the IB’s credit that it wishes to have TOK at the core of the Diploma program so that whatever embers might lie within our thinking that are the remnants of reflective thinking may still be able to catch fire and flame out as something other than calculative thinking.

Personal Knowledge, Empowerment and Reason

What is the relation of the principle of reason to personal knowledge and what we have come to call empowerment? It is the power of the principle of reason that “empowers” what we think personal knowledge is. The principle of reason governs all modern thought and action in the sense that it makes all modern thought and its consequences possible. It is the principle of reason that “empowers” the modern age to be what it is. At the same time, the principle of reason “overpowers” all thought and action making it difficult, if not impossible, to think and act except in the manner prescribed by the principle of reason. Our enchainment to the principle of reason requires that we “hear” what is being said in it and, at the same time, how the “mighty” principle (in Leibniz’ word) has come to determine what is understood as “technology” and its “empowerment” of human beings in the modern age. This attentive “hearing” requires that we begin to listen to what we hear which we have previously been inattentive to in the principle of reason; and this hearing and seeing requires a responsiveness on our part to what is and what we are as human beings.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Plato Cave
Plato’s Cave

Commentary: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

A translation of Plato’s allegory of the cave

Context of the Allegory:

The allegory of the Cave occurs at the beginning of Bk. VII of Plato’s Republic. Both Adiemantus and Glaucon are Plato’s brothers, so it would appear that Plato is concerned about looking after his “kin” or his “own” in this dialogue. The dialogue occurs in the home of Cephalus, an old man, whose son Polemarchus is also present, but does not take part in the conversation after BK. I. The speakers, who are talking about the best regime in speech, are about to endure the worst regime in deed as the rule of the Thirty Tyrants is about to take place in Athens. Polemarchus will be killed during that rule. In Bk VI, Socrates has spoken about societies (cities, organizations) as being “a Great Beast”, and his task is to show how someone can gain freedom from this Beast.

The Platonic image of the cave describes our essential human condition or situation. All human beings begin, and most human beings end, as prisoners of the authoritative opinions of their time and place. We are the products of our “shared knowledge”. How our “personal knowledge” has come to be shaped and how we have come to understand our “personal knowledge” is also a product or outcome of this shared knowledge that we have inherited from our traditions. Education is a liberation from these bonds, the ascent to a standpoint from which the cave and its interpretation of what knowledge is can be seen for what it is. Socrates’ assertion that he only knows that he is ignorant reveals that he has attained such a standpoint, one from which he can see that what others take to be knowledge is only opinion, opinion determined by the necessities of life in the cave.

Philosophy or thinking, in all its various forms in the past, always supposed that by unaided reason human beings are somehow capable of getting beyond the given and finding a non-arbitrary standard against which to measure that given; and that this possibility constitutes the essence of human freedom and the essence of what human beings are. The modern technological world-view is the most radical denial of this possibility and of the essence of human freedom. The objection that is made against reason is not that of skepticism, a view that has always been present from thinking’s beginnings, but the positive or dogmatic assertion that reason is incapable of finding permanent, non-arbitrary principles. All claims and counterclaims in Theory of Knowledge rest on these two most powerful assertions and one must explore the nature of reason as a way of knowing in order to see and to understand how the outcomes of reason have manifested themselves in the technological world-view. Perhaps our understanding of reason or our interpretation of what reason is is flawed in some way. As the philosopher Leo Strauss once said, “Because one cannot see the mountaintop because it is covered by clouds does not mean that one is not able to make judgements between a mountain and a molehill”.

What has remained as the most dominant understanding of what reason and knowledge are is logical positivism, which understands its principles to be unprovable and dependent on their “usefulness” or “pragmatic” applications, and radical historicism which goes further by asserting that reason has its roots in unreason and is, hence, only a superficial phenomenon. Radical historicism (existentialism) concludes that the logical positivists’ principles, admittedly arbitrary, are the product of only one of an infinite number of possible perspectives, horizons, or folk minds (cultures) which are dependent on their historical and social contexts. There are infinite variety of other approaches to human being that are possible. The radical historicist position is captured in the opening sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey: Both the music and the events of this sequence are apropos to the illustrating the radical historicist or “existentialist” position.

It is fitting that any Theory of Knowledge course should begin with Plato’s allegory of the Cave for its discussions of education, truth and who and what human beings are remains as relevant today as when it was first written some 2400 years ago.


The cave is the place where we live everyday: it is our society, or all societies. The fire in the cave, which is burning above the prisoners, is an “image” of the Sun inside of the cave; the fire is (or can be) both a natural and human-made creation and like the Sun itself is related to “light”. We are unsure as to the origin of the fire within the cave, but we will make the assumption that it is physis or Nature or the natural. It is what is called “shared knowledge” in the TOK course design, those things which we have knowledge about. It is “behind us” or something which is “past”. The fire gives ‘light’ to the cave and all that is inside of the cave. This light is necessary for the prisoners to see the ‘shadows’. The Sun’s light is present inside of the cave, but it is diffuse. You will notice in the beginning of the allegory that the emphasis is on “seeing” and this word is repeated often by both Socrates and Glaucon.

What surrounds and concerns the prisoners is, for them, “the real” i.e. that which is. In the cave (any society and its social constructs) the prisoners feel “at home” and it is here that the prisoners find what they can rely on in the everydayness of their dealings i.e. what is of ‘use’ to them and for them. These are the “shadows”. This is what is called “personal knowledge” in the TOK course design and this personal knowledge is reliant on the fire or “shared knowledge” which illuminates and creates the shadows that the prisoners have come to call “knowledge”. The Greeks had a wonderful expression: “The future comes to meet us from behind”; and we can interpret this as meaning that what we are as human beings will come to pass and is coming to pass due to this “fire” that is behind us and which has determined and determines our “seeing” in the present for it is the fire that allows the shadows to be. For the Greeks, this knowing one’s way about in the everydayness of our dealings with the world was called “techne” and it was for them one form of knowledge.

In contrast to the inside of the Cave are the things that are visible outside of the cave: these, according to the allegory, are the ‘proper being of the beings’ or what things really are or what their essence consists in. This is where beings show up in their “visible form”. For Plato, this ‘visible form’ is not the ‘mere appearance’ of the thing/being, but is something of a ‘stepping forth’ whereby the thing presents itself to us so that it can be seen. In Greek, the visible form of something is eidos or idea. In the allegory, the thing/being, standing in its visible form, “shows itself”. In the allegory, the things that are visible outside of the cave, where one’s sight is free to look at everything, are the “ideas”. For Plato, if people do not have these “ideas” in their ‘seeing’, living beings, humans, numbers, and gods would not be able to be seen. We would not be able to see a tree as a tree, a house as a house, a god as a god.

Usually we think we see this house or this tree directly. Generally, we never understand that we only ‘see’ these things in the ‘light’ of the ‘ideas’ and the ideas get their being and their light from the Sun or “The Idea of The Good”.  According to Plato, what the prisoners presume to be the ‘real’—what they can immediately see, hear, grasp and compute—always remains a mere faint representation or sketch of the idea, and consequently, a shadow. The things which are nearest to us in our concerns, even though they have only the consistency of shadows, hold us ‘enchained’ day after day.  This is what we have come to call our “personal knowledge”. Since we are unable to recognize the prison for what it is, we consider this everydayness the ground of our experience and judgement and that this everyday ground provides the sole standard for all things and relations including our dispositions in the arrangement of the things of experience. This is sometimes referred to as cognition in our readings in TOK.

Now if the human beings who are prisoners were to be ‘compelled’ to glance back at the fire whose light produces the shadows of the things being carried back and forth, this ‘turning’ would cause their habitual ‘seeing’ to be disrupted, and this disruption would change their behaviour and their current opinion of things. This change is rejected by the prisoners for they feel that they are in a clear and complete possession of the real.  The people in the cave are so passionately attached to their “view” or “way of seeing” that they are incapable of thinking or suspecting the possibility that what they are taking for the real is really mere shadows. But how could they know about the shadows when they do not want to even be aware of the fire in the cave and its light that “allows” their seeing and when this light is made by human beings (possibly) and is familiar to human beings? The fire is a metaphor for what we call “education” and it is the artisans (in Greek, the technes) who are the ‘keepers of the fire’. Techne in Greek is “know how” or to “know one’s way about or in something”. It is one possible definition or description of knowledge.

In contrast, the light of the Sun which is outside of the cave is not a product of human making. In the light of the Sun, things grow ‘out of themselves’ and are present and show themselves immediately without the need of the shadows to represent them. The things that show themselves are the ‘images’ of the ideas. But it is the Sun that makes all ideas visible and is the source of all ideas. The Sun is the image of The Idea of the Good which is beyond all beings and Being (i.e. it is not the Good itself). This light of the Sun is “Love”, which in its self-giving allows the things/beings, through the ideas, to “step forth” and appear as what they really are. (“Faith is experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Love”—Simone Weil.) We are able to see the things/beings because our eye is “sun-like” and shares something in common with the sun and with the fire that is inside the cave. It is the sun as light that establishes the ratio or relationship between the thing itself in its “stepping forth” and our eye in its seeing so that the thing can be seen. It is the idea that provides the limits to things so that everything is not just a blur. We have come to call this “process” the “ways of knowing” or “cognition”.

The allegory contains a number of movements: the enchainment to the shadows, the releasement from the chains, the passage out of the cave and into the light of the sun, and the return back from the light of the sun into the cave. For each of these movements the eyes must accustom themselves to the changes from darkness to light and from light to the darkness again. In each case, the eyes experience confusion and for opposite reasons: on the one hand, people can be shown the fire and recognize that the things they are concerned with are shadows of the fire and they can choose either to become the tenders and makers of the fire themselves or return to their comfortable ignorance in the shadows (this is the first stage of what we know traditionally as “education”. This is the world of those who prefer to live in “intentional ignorance”).

This returning to the world of the shadows is a ‘free choice’ that people make. It is, if you like, Macbeth’s choice where he is fully aware of the evil of his desires, but chooses to be intentionally ignorant of these and attempts to suppress this evil. (“Plato’s morality is: Do not make the worst possible mistake of deceiving yourself. We know that we are acting correctly when the power of thinking is not hindered by what we are doing. To do only those things which one can think clearly and not to do those things which force the mind to have unclear thoughts about what one is doing. That is the whole of Plato’s morality. True morality is purely internal”. S. Weil)

Just as the physical eye must accustom itself slowly and steadily both to the light and to the dark, the soul, too, must accustom itself to the realm of the beings/things to which it is exposed. But the process of getting accustomed requires that the whole being of the human being must be turned in the direction of what it is striving towards,  just as the eye can only look comfortably at something only when the whole body is turned in that direction. This change must be slow and steady because it changes the ground of what we are as human beings. This change is what Plato calls padaiea or what we call “education”. It is “habit”. Education is the guiding of the whole human being in turning around his or her essence. Education is a ‘movement’ from ‘non-education’ to ‘padaiea’.

“Education” means ‘formation’ for the Greeks. As we become ‘educated’ we have a ‘character’ that is impressed upon us and that unfolds as we live: we wish to become ‘life-long learners’. At the same time, this ‘forming’ of people “forms” or impresses a character on people by creating a standard in terms of a “paradigm” (or stamp). We call this our IB Learner Profile. Thus “education” or “formation” means impressing a character on people and guiding them by a paradigm. The contrary of “education” is lack of “formation” where no measurable standard is put forth. Genuine education takes hold of our very soul and transforms it entirely by leading us to the stand or ground of what it means to be human and makes us accustomed to it.

In the allegory, there is a relation between “education” and “truth” because it is the essence of truth that forms the paradigm that guides people. But what links education and truth? What is the relationship between the IB Learner Profile and the understanding of truth implicit in it?

Education means turning around the whole human being. It means moving human beings from the way where they first encounter things and transferring them and accustoming them to another way in which the things appear. This movement can only occur when the way things have been shown to human beings, and the way in which things have appeared to human beings prior, gets transformed. Whatever we “see” at any given time and the manner of our “seeing” has to be transformed. In Greek, this “seeing” is called aletheia or “unhiddenness”. We have traditionally translated aletheia as “truth”. We will see later that “truth” has come to mean the agreement of the representation in thought with the thing itself: what has been called the “correspondence theory of truth” and that this correspondence somehow “reveals” the things that we see. The essence of truth, which is not of human making, makes possible “education”.

The allegory of the Cave illustrates four different “grounds” or ways of being for human beings. Each stage is characterized by a different kind of aletheia or “unhiddenness” and we need to see what kind of “truth” is prevalent at each level.

The Four Stages:

In Stage one, people live enchained inside the cave and are engrossed by what they immediately encounter. At this stage, human beings consider only the shadows cast by the artifacts as being the “unhidden” or the truth of things. This could be understood as our ‘enchainment’ to the material nature of things or to our technological devices in our modern day world. It is the stage where most human beings dwell.

At Stage Two, the chains are removed and the prisoner is “compelled” to “turn” and to look at the things that, before, were merely shadows to him or her. Although still within the cave, the person is “free” in a certain respect: they can move their heads in every direction and it is possible to see the very things that were carried along the roadway behind them. Before they looked only at shadows; now they are “a little nearer to what is”. The things offer themselves in a visible form in a certain way, namely, through the light of the man-made fire and they are no longer “hidden” by the shadows they project. When one’s gaze is freed from the captivity of the shadows, it becomes possible for the person who has been freed to enter into the area that is more “unhidden”. But the person will consider the shadows that they saw before as being more “unhidden” than what is being shown to them in the first “turning”. Why is this so?

The eyes are not accustomed to the light and the prisoner is initially blinded and confused. The first liberation is painful. The blinding does not allow the prisoner to see the fire itself and from understanding how its light illuminates the things and lets these things appear for the first time. That is why those who have been liberated cannot comprehend that what they previously saw were merely shadows. They “see” other things besides the shadows; but these things only appear in confusion to them. In contrast, the shadows appear much more sharply and because of this, the prisoner who has been freed thinks these shadows are more “unhidden”. The word aletheia or “truth” occurs again at this point in a comparative degree: the shadows are “more unhidden” than they were before. The prisoner feels that the more proper “truth” is to be found in the shadows because they are unable to recognize or “see” the shadows as shadows. The condition necessary for assessing the shadows as shadows is “freedom”. Removing the chains brings a sort of freedom, but it is not yet real freedom.

Stage Three: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and the Realm of True Freedom:

Real freedom is only attained at Stage Three. The prisoner is led out of the Cave and “into the open” where, as from a height, all things are “shown”. The “looks” that show what things are no longer appear as merely in the man-made and confusing glow of the fire. The things themselves appear in the “truth” and bindingness of their own appearance (both in themselves and to us). The “openness” outside of the Cave does not mean Sun’s light (Beauty, Truth, and Goodness). The light of the Sun is a metaphor for Love in the Cave and outside of the Cave. The “looks” that show what things are, the Ideas or the Forms, are the essence (the “whatness”) of what each individual thing/being shows itself as this or that. It is only through this “self-showing” that the appearing thing becomes visible and accessible to us as human beings.

The stance of “being in the world” at Stage Three is defined in terms of what is “unhidden” at this level. This “unhidden” is even more “unhidden” than the things illuminated by the man-made fire in distinction to the shadows. The “unhidden” that has been reached is the most “unhidden” of all. The light of the Sun grants to the things that are the ability of “self-showing”. Without such a “self-showing” of what they are through the Ideas and the Forms, any and all specific things—in fact, absolutely everything—would remain hidden. “The most unhidden” is called this because it is what appears in everything that appears, and it makes whatever appears be accessible in its appearance. But that which allows things to appear as what they really are is “the Good”, and it allows things to appear in their “Truth” (“unhiddenness”) and their “Beauty”. Beauty, Truth and Goodness are not man-made constructs or concepts, but are in fact “the standards” that allow all things to be seen for what they truly are and “bind” human beings to them in the Beauty of their “unhiddenness”. Understanding this ‘bindingness’ is necessary if one wishes to understand ‘fate’ as it is used in other sections of this blog. As human beings, we are bound to how the things “show” themselves in their “truth”.

For the prisoners inside of the Cave, to have been freed from the shadows to see the light of the fire and to see how things are shown in the firelight was a difficult task that proved too difficult for many prisoners. In their pain and confusion they returned to the shadows. Being freed into the openness outside of the Cave also requires endurance and effort. Being freed from the chains does not come about by the simple removal of the chains; and certainly freedom is not uncontrolled license to do what one wishes. Freedom consists in the continuous effort to accustom oneself to look upon the firm limits of the things that stand in their visible form. It is an understanding of the Necessity that is operable within all things. For Plato, this freedom is not an “active doing” but is more in the nature of “contemplation”, a “beholding” of what beauty, truth and goodness are.  Authentic freedom is the steadiness of being oriented toward what appears in its visible form and which is most “unhidden” in this appearing. “Education” is a “turning toward” and a “turning around”. The fulfillment of the essence of “education” can only be achieved in the region of the most “unhidden” i.e. the truest, the most beautiful, and the goodness of what is.

Because the essence of “education” is this “turning around” and a “turning towards” and a “beholding” of what truth, beauty and goodness are, education remains a constant overcoming of “hiddenness” or untruth. Plato views education as the constant overcoming of the lack of education. The allegory continues, therefore, with the Fourth Stage.

Stage Four: The Cave, The Liberator and the Political:

The Fourth Stage involves the descent of the freed person back into the Cave, back to those who are still in the chains. The one who has been freed is required to lead those who are still in chains away from what is “unhidden” for them and to bring them face to face with the most unhidden. But because the liberator has been outside of the Cave, he no longer knows his way around inside of the Cave and he risks the dangers of succumbing to the overwhelming power of the kind of “truth” or “unhiddenness” that operates in the Cave by those who tend the Fire and those who are satisfied living with the shadows: those who believe that what is called reality in the Cave is the only reality. The liberator risks being put to death: the fate that befell Plato’s teacher, Socrates.

The return to the Cave and the battle waged within the Cave between the liberator and the prisoners who resist all liberation makes up Stage Four of the “allegory” and brings the story to an end. The word aletheia or “unhiddenness”, “truth” is no longer used at this stage. Nevertheless, the notion of what truth is creates the conditions of that area in the Cave that the freed person now visits. Now, in stages one and two there were two forms of “unhiddenness” that were operating: the unhiddenness of the shadows and the unhiddenness of the man-made fire. These two views of unhiddenness represent two factors essential to the unhidden or “truth”: not only does the “unhidden” render accessible whatever appears and keeps it revealed in its appearing, but it constantly overcomes a hiddenness of the hidden. The “unhidden” must be constantly “grasped” and “torn away from” hiddenness; it must be “stolen” from hiddenness. Originally for the Greeks, hiddenness was conceived as an act of “self-hiding”, and this “self-hiding” permeated the essence of what we call “reality” and being and it determined how beings were accessible and how beings “presented” themselves. (For example, as students you are constantly “annoyed” by having to look for what you have come to call the “hidden meaning” in your literature texts; and in a Greek way, this “stealing” or “grasping” the meaning of a text is a “wresting away” from the text the “truth” of the text so that the text will be “present” in its “reality”, in its “truth” i.e. not as some kind of “subjective” response to the text as an object. But this ‘wresting away’ requires that the text ‘give’ accessibility to you in its “presence” and that you are able to “see” that which the text “offers” to you, and “grasp” it, and take it away with you.)

Truth originally means that which has been wrested from hiddenness. Truth is a ‘wresting away’ in the form of ‘revealing’. The hiddenness is of various kinds: closing off, hiding away, disguising, covering over, masking, dissembling. Examples of these various kinds of hiddenness are motifs running throughout Shakespeare’s work, particularly Macbeth. According to the allegory, the “most unhidden” must be ‘wrested away’ from a base and stubborn hiding, and it is for this reason that the journey out of the Cave and into the open, into the light of the Sun is a life and death struggle. Stage Four gives us a glimpse into how “privation” (eros), or “need”—attaining the unhidden by wresting it away—belongs to the essence of truth. It is this “privation” or lack of and need of truth that gives concrete substance to what is most natural for human beings. For Socrates, when he speaks of justice and says that “It is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it” (Gorgias), the truth of this is given to him in the light (Love) that comes from the Sun (the Good) and it is the lack of and the need for this light which human beings desire (need) the most and that leads them to seek truth in its most unhidden. And this is why for Plato truth, beauty and goodness are One, but all three are a One and proceed from Goodness (and, as is mentioned in Stage Three, everything proceeds from Goodness). But how is this so?

Truth, Beauty and Goodness:

The presentation of the allegory understands the underground Cave and the area outside of the Cave (the Open) as the region where the events of the story take place. (Let us, for our purposes, also view a third Cave, a cave within the Cave, our virtual world of technology and see how this plays out.) What is essential in the story are the movements of the passage: the ascent from the realm of the light of the man-made fire into the brightness of the sunlight as well as the descent from the source of all light back into the darkness of the Cave. If we add our virtual world, this ascent is made even harder, longer and more confusing. The emphasis in the allegory of the Cave is on “seeing” and its dependence on the light, and we must try to understand what this “light” might be a metaphor of. For this, we must look at the role played by the Fire, the fire’s light and the shadows it casts, the brightness of the Open outside of the Cave, the light of the Sun, and the Sun itself. Everything in the allegory depends on the “shining forth” of whatever appears and on what makes this visibility possible. Love, as Plato says elsewhere, is fire catching fire.

We notice that “unhiddenness” or “truth” is present at all the various stages in the allegory. Now this “unhiddenness” is not some “relative truth” which we ourselves create: the light of the man-made fire is still a derivative of the “truth” of the Sun. All truth is One. The light is that which allows us to see things in their “self-showing”; that is, it is the things themselves which “shine” and their shining and our viewing are held together in the same “light”. What is accessible to us in its visible form (eidos) and that which shows itself (idea) are held together. But how? How are the visible form (eidos) and that which shows itself to us as something (idea) to be held together?

The visible form of the thing (eidos) appears to us in the very brightness of its shining; this we understand as beauty. The visible “form” (eidos) provides the “shining” of that which is present and allows us to know it as what it is. The “idea” is the visible form that offers itself to us. The “idea” is the pure light or shining in the sense “the sun shines”. The “idea” does not (and is not) a something else that is beneath or behind that allows it to appear; it itself is what shines; it is only concerned with the shining of itself. The idea is that which can shine. The essence of the idea consists in its ability to shine and be seen. This is what brings about “presencing” or the coming to “presence” of what a being or something is in any given instance. A being becomes present in its “whatness”. What the idea, in its shining forth, brings into view and thereby lets us see—for the beholding which is fixed on the idea—is the unhidden of that in which the idea is present. The forms and ideas proceed from the Good.

If we grasp the idea as a self-showing and a self-giving that allows us to “know” what a being or thing is in its “unhiddenness”, then we can see how this shining and showing is Love. This is why the liberated prisoner who has ascended to the Open into the light of the Sun is “compelled” to return to the Cave and to live among those who have, as yet, need of liberation. He or she, too, must be a “self-showing” and a “self-giving” and must reveal the Good, not as a concept, but as being itself.

This understanding is crucial for the understanding (or misunderstanding) of what occurs in Western philosophy. The “truth” or the “unhiddenness” of something has come to be understood as that which is apprehended or “grasped” in the apprehending of the idea as that which is “known”. This apprehending is the act of knowing of the ideas. This understanding of the “ideas” comes to determine the essence of “apprehension” and subsequently the essence of “reason”, and this is essential for what we think ourselves to be today (and why, as we shall see, technology is a way of knowing). How the “shining” is looked upon, either as a “grasping”, “apprehending” by human beings or as a “contemplation” of the “shining” in its own beauty which grasps us will be the essence of many of the knowledge issues and questions which we shall discuss in this journey through TOK. How that light which we have tried to show here is Love becomes translated as ratio, reason is a long and difficult question.

Because the idea is able to shine, “truth” or “unhiddenness” is that which is accessible. This access is carried out through “seeing”; truth and seeing are bound together in a relationship to each other; and this relationship of truth and “seeing” are a “beholding”. It is what we call “knowledge”. But what is beholding? What ties truth and seeing together?

The Sun (the Good) as the source of light lends (grants, gives) visibility (idea) to whatever is seen. But seeing sees what is visible only insofar as the eye that sees is what is Sun-like by having the disposition to participate in the Sun’s kind of essence, that is, its shining. The eye in its seeing is “sun-like” by its participation and devotion to the shining and in this way is able to receive and apprehend whatever appears. (This is how Aristotle’s famous opening to his Metaphysics should be understood: it is usually translated as “All men by nature desire to know”. A better translation would be: “All men by nature desire to see”, and we might understand this “seeing” as what we call “experience”.) The Sun grants, gives to the eye its participation in whatever appears. As Plato says, “What provides unhiddenness to the things known and also grants (gives) the capability (of knowing) to the knower, this, I say, is the idea of the Good.” Because the eye is sun-like, it is able to be held in a relation with the Sun. This relation is one of language or logos. It is the logos which binds human beings to the things that are and human beings came to be defined by the Greeks as the zoon logon echon or “the animal who possesses language” (genitive case) or “the animal possessed by language” (accusative case).

As idea the Good is something that shines, and in its shining allows sight and is something that is visible and knowable: “In the realm of what can be known the idea of the Good is the power of visibility that accomplishes all shining forth and that therefore is properly seen only last, in fact it is hardly (only with great pains) really seen at all.”


Personal Knowledge: Understanding the Shadows

Understanding the Shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: A Discussion of Techne

TOKQuestionHow are we to understand that the things of our world are the shadows which Plato speaks of in his allegory of the Cave? From the allegory, we can understand that our “shared knowledge” is the legacy to which we are indebted for the ways in which we come to interpret and to understand the things of our world and ourselves. This interpretation and understanding is what comes to constitute our world-view, and from this world-view our “lifestyle”.  Human beings are the ‘indebted’ creatures, and part of this indebtedness is to the ‘shared knowledge’ of our Caves.

What is meant by technology in these writings is how the things of our world are revealed to us (their truth), and how we think they are constituted (what we think they are, what we think their “essence” is). Technology determines our ways of knowing i.e. the language and behaviors/actions (the ethics, for lack of a better term) that allow the things of our world to appear around us in the particular way that they do and which gives to those things their particular being and significance, and our sense of understanding of that being and significance. Atomic weapons and particle accelerators, computers and hand phones are the most obvious examples of how the things about us have come to be understood through the shared knowledge that has resulted from the particular ways of knowing as they were used and understood by our ancestors. But what does it mean to call these things ‘shadows’ and how can our disposition and comportment towards the things about us be an ‘enchainment’ towards and within them?

Personal Knowledge: The Shadows of our Everydayness

All aspects of our lives are caught up in matrices or webs of meaning and concern, many of which are quite complex and also quite unknown to us. That they are unknown to us does not matter to us as we do not need to know all of or all about what we deal with in our everyday lives. The things of our world do not get to arrive and are not meant to arrive to us in their essence. The kinds of things that are revealed to us in our everyday lives, our lives in our Caves, are done so through the practices of technology, or more precisely, the techne of technology: things are ‘disposables’ for us; they are the ‘resources’ which we use (our “know-how” and our “being at home in”) to achieve  our desired ends. The things do not get to stand as ‘objects’ for us, in our common understanding of the term ‘objects’. Our lives are ordered so that the things about us are ordered and await our use for our further ordering (disposables). This is what techne is; this is our ‘knowing our way about or within something’, and this understanding of techne goes back to Plato and Aristotle. It was understood as ‘know how’ or what we understand as technique, and it is also a ‘knowing one’s way about and within something’.

When we walk into our study rooms in the morning and see the computers on our desks, that computer is revealed to us as ‘resource’. It awaits our turning it on so that we may get its things, its data, ‘in order’ so that the things it is associated with (our daily tasks, our social network connections, etc.) may be brought into order. The things on the computer, its ‘information’, await our command for their transformation, distribution and movement about. The data on the computer is a ‘resource’ that awaits our commands in order to be ‘disposed’, transformed, distributed and moved about in the manners which we desire. This ‘know how’ on our part in dealing with the computer was called techne by the Greeks. We do not need to know what the computer is in its essence, for if we gave ourselves to this thinking about the computer, this would interfere with the efficiency of the computer in bringing about the ends for which it was designed (See the writing on “The computer does not impose…” in another section of this blog). But for the Greeks, techne and its products or results were always for another and in another i.e. when the architect designed the house, he designed it for someone else to live in (although he could design a house for himself, his work or concern is primarily designing buildings for others).

The uncanny thing regarding our disposition towards the things that are in our world is that those things are not allowed to and do not intrude into our worlds unless they do not operate with their usual efficiency and bring about their usual desired results. I am only conscious of the hardware and software of the computer when it breaks down, when Microsoft doesn’t work! When I look about the condo I am living in, I see that it too is ‘a machine for living in’ (according to the philosopher Martin Heidegger). The condo patiently awaits its tenant—whoever they are or might be—for their use of it in ordering their lives. The coffee mug on the shelf, the remote for the TV to update myself on the morning’s news, the breakfast cereal, the toothbrush in the bathroom all exist as resources to be used to get me ready for my day. These things, like the TV and the toothbrush, are supposed to disappear into our use of them; they are supposed to be there for us only insofar as they are useful without any impediment or any careful scrutiny. Their existence is banal and interchangeable: they have no reality for us as particular entities or things. Even should I say “This is my toothbrush” and no one else is to use it, even should the toothbrush have a cute Hello Kitty design on the handle, the toothbrush itself remains, in itself, anonymous and interchangeable. In other words, it does not exist for me as an object but only in so far as it can be ordered in bringing about the result (brushing my teeth) so that I may get on with my day’s main concern. Today’s breakfast cereal tastes exactly like yesterday’s and mine is exactly like that sold to someone in Jakarta or in Moscow. (The MacDonald Big Mac might be the strongest relatable example of this banality and interchangeability; it will be the same no matter which Big Mac and which MacDonalds it is ordered from in any location in the world whether in Hong Kong or in New York: it is the essence of fast food that we do not think about it).  This banality and interchangeability is what makes them what they are. It is their banality and interchangeability that gives them their status as resource. They are no one’s because they are everyone’s. Their nature is to only have a general nature, a nature that is exhausted in their impersonal usefulness to any one of us. Or, to relate it more directly to Plato’s allegory of the Cave, all these things are things the being of which fails to gather the many conditions of their coming to presence. They are the “shadows” of what they really are and it is exactly this “shadowness” that we require; the meaningfulness and the significance of the things must remain on the surface, it must have no depth. The marginal differences between the things is of no matter. One toothbrush is like all the rest. The important thing is that the differences, to the extent that they do not interfere with the thing’s usefulness to us, do not intrude on our use of them.

This banality and interchangeability of the things about us are not just accidents, not just matters of chance, and they are not just the unfortunate (or fortunate) features of living in a society rich enough to mass-produce these things: they are essential features of our need for these entities to readily disappear into our use of them. Our practical behaviour, our cognitions and cognitive activities, are given over to ordering for the sake of ordering (see the writings on the principle of reason or the logos of the techne + logos). The more easily and quickly a thing can be thoughtlessly taken up into its particular task of ordering, the more efficient it is. If we were to pay explicit attention to the tools/things that we use, that is, if we were to treat the tools/things as any more than merely shadows, this would distract us from the job that the tool/thing is meant to perform and make the successful completion of the task less likely. Reflection would make us “inefficient” and less “productive”. The things are made so that they may disappear in our use of them. The less we pay attention to the particular thing whatever that particular thing may be, the more efficiently we carry on with the tasks we have inherited from the social practices of our societies (our Caves) that are our “shared knowledge” and have come to make us who and what we are as well as those entities/things about us. How we see a child, a tree, a road has been pre-determined for us.

Our drive to ordering (classifying) or commandeering for the sake of ordering or domination, “the essence of technology”, will seek to remove anything that impedes such ordering or commandeering, even God. Our drive to conquer chance or contingency, to secure the ordering and commandeering of the things of Nature for our own ends, to make of ourselves the masters of all things that are, has led to the disappearance of God or the gods. What is called “humanism” arises with this disappearance of God.

Technology seeks to produce things that efface or hide their own conditions of production. We come to view ourselves as “unconditional”, as distinct selves, and all of our practices/actions are as relations of “condition” and “convenience” which, in turn, determine the decisions that we make towards things and towards others in our lives. Technology’s convenience and efficiency requires that we view our world and the other human beings in it as “shadows” or as disposables/resources. There is nothing in our lives that is not beyond the conditional and “bargains” i.e. our ability to negotiate a ‘contract’, to ‘make a deal’.

Caught up as we are in our everyday world of technological praxis, availing ourselves of the disposables/resources of the things which we bring to presence and use within our practical activities, neither the practices nor the things announce themselves as dependent for their being on the coming together of several material and conceptual events. The successful deployment of a TV remote or a hand phone requires that I am able to forget about them and about the conceptual “framing” or com-posing that makes them what they are. My ability to give myself over fully to the practices within which these entities function depends on my being able to “skip over” these entities or tools, and to “skip over” the practices/actions themselves. I must look past them without noticing them: they must not resist or become obtrusive to my consciousness or my actions. My being-in-the-practices, my “doing”, not my reflection upon the practices and things, is the mark of their full value for me and for us. The “good” of our practices is their ability to consume us, to obliterate any thought of how they have come to be for us, to make of ourselves an orderly part of the ordering of what there is i.e. a disposable resource. The most successful technology obliterates even ourselves as human beings as a condition of what gets done. The getting-it-done is all. This getting-it-done is our “enchainment” within the Caves that constitute our social practices. It requires an incredible and uncanny ability to not think, or, in other words, not to be fully human, and it constitutes our enslavement to technology.

hoeweler_TIME_100_green_final.JPGAnother triter example to help us understand how technology determines our actions and relations to each other is with the writer John Green. While Mr. Green has certainly “hit the mark” with his discussions of Aristotle’s hamartia in his popular online videos, he misunderstands Aristotle’s analysis of the ‘slavish’ behaviour of most human beings in relation to the technites or artisans of society in his critique of Aristotle’s understanding of freedom which Aristotle provides in his Nicomachean Ethics. Mr. Green is, undoubtedly, a techne, and his writings have enchanted many young people into a love of reading (including my own children). But in order for Mr. Green’s writings to reach my children, somewhere men and women must work the midnight shift on the printing presses to meet the deadlines imposed by others who wish to get his books to print and to the market. These workers are not Disney’s seven dwarves who whistle while they work nor are they Santa’s elves. They are engaged in the ‘slavish’ behaviour which has been determined by the technites in order to meet the ‘needs’ or ‘uses’ of our society, in this case, the love of Mr. Green’s books. Mr. Green is not a William Blake who sees his work from its inception as idea to the completion and perfection of its production. Mr. Green must rely on others, for another and in another, in order for his works to reach his audience. In the allegory of the Cave, Mr. Green is among the artisans who create the artifacts and tend the fire that lights up the shadows that constitute the walls of the Cave. This lighting, the works reaching his audience, requires the “slavish behaviour” of other human beings, according to Aristotle, in order to bring it about.

When I look out my window and see the foreign workers of Singapore building the condominium next door, I see that these workers are ‘enslaved’ to the ends put forward in the blueprint of the “architect”. “Architect” is a combination of the two Greeks words: “arche” meaning ‘first’ or ‘primary’ and ‘techne’, the “artisan” who is the source of the ideas or ‘know how’ for the design of the condominium. The completion of the condominium is ‘in another’ or ‘through another’, and its use is ‘for another’, someone other than the architect herself. The workers are not free to go outside of the design of the techne, the plan in the blueprint. Their behaviour is ‘slavish’ in the words of Aristotle; it is the techne who enjoys the freedom to create even though she may be limited by the possibilities of the materials used to construct the building, etc.

The technites are the keepers of the fire in Plato’s allegory. They are the social and artistic engineers of today’s world. The enchainment of the prisoners in the Cave is their necessary slavish behaviour towards the “shadows” produced by these artisans and engineers who are themselves enchained by their viewing within technology: techne + logos. True freedom for human beings consists in establishing the proper relationship towards technology and the world-view which it constructs. The establishing of this comportment towards technology is a most difficult, painful journey and experience. More on this relationship later.