TOK Essay Topics May 2023

A few notes of warning and guidance before we begin:

The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are strategies and suggestions, questions and possible responses only, for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given. They should be used alongside the discussions that you will carry out with your peers and teachers during the process of constructing your essay.

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

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

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

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

Here is a link to a PowerPoint that contains recommendations and a flow chart outlining the steps to writing a TOK essay. Some of you may need to get your network administrator to make a few tweaks in order for you to access it. Comments, observations and discussions are most welcome. Contact me at or directly through this website.

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

Essay Topics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the knowers or researchers cannot directly observe the past in the same way that the object of research can be observed and studied in the Natural Sciences. “Historiology” is the study of history in general, the search for what its essence is, what its purpose is. “Historiography”, that is, a study of the writings of history, is not a study of all of the past, but rather a study of those traces or artifacts that have been deemed relevant and meaningful by historians; and this choosing of artifacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”.  The relevance and meaning of the artifacts chosen for study is determined ahead of time by the “values” present in the culture or “context” in which the historian is embedded. In order to overcome this essential bias inherent from the historian’s social context, there is an appeal to what is called “the fact-value distinction”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World and Meaning in the Sefer Yetzirah

This is a supplemental writing to a larger “Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah“. It contains thoughts relevant to an interpretation of the context of the Theory of Knowledge guide as given in its latest release, though those unfamiliar with the text of the Sefer Yetzirah or the Tarot may find some of its references difficult to follow. It may shed some light on the core themes as well as how knowledge, understanding and meaning are understood in the writings on this blog. It also sheds light on how I have come to understand the saying of Simone Weil: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love.”

The concept of “world” used here is from the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was an anti-Semite and a Nazi. Heidegger is the only great German philosopher who did not have a Protestant Christian background. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was a product of the Roman Catholicism of the rural Germany in which he grew up. Heidegger’s “tragedy” is that he did not pay sufficient attention or give sufficient thought to the Delphic command to “know thyself”. Heidegger’s comments were that Jewish “rootlessness” caused them to be be, historically, without “world” i.e., that they were not human beings in the full sense but mere beasts. The Jews were not connected to the “blood and soil” that Heidegger saw as necessary to having a “world”. After the war, Heidegger was silent (for the most part) on the Shoah, but there are some notes he left behind that would seem to suggest that he was aware of the death camps and that he approved of them. What is being said about modern philosophy when its most consummate practitioner found appropriate political expression for his thought in the base inhumanity of National Socialism?

World and Meaning in the Sefer Yetzirah

Being the ‘perfect imperfection’, as human beings we desire to know the “reality” of whatever is, how it “is” as it is whatever it is, and the being of whatever has being. For the Sefer Yetzirah, as it was for the Greek philosopher Aristotle, “presence” (ousia) is what constitutes the reality of the things that are. Two questions predominate: what is the thing’s nature (essence)? what is its source (arche)?

In the Sefer Yetzirah, the study of the first question, the “what” question, is metaphysics. The study of the second question, the “how” question, is theology (“natural theology” as opposed to “revealed theology”, although these, too, are interrelated). For Aristotle, the nature of the being of the real is energeia. The ultimate source of the being of the real is “pure” or “perfect energeia”. Some thing is real if it is, and is some thing. For Aristotle, a thing’s form is its “ideal” way of being; it is what the thing is supposed to be.

We may compare Aristotle’s concept and that which is in the Sefer Yetzirah to the metaphor of the athlete and the ascetic: to athlon “the prize to be won in a contest”; athleo “to contend for the prize”. Contending for the prize requires that the athlete continuously work out in order to get in shape. Being an athlete requires being an ascetic, someone who constantly works to get in form or stay in shape. The Sefer Yetzirah is a training manual for the ascetic, and in this characteristic it shares a number of similarities with the writings of the Gnostics.

To apply the metaphor to the concept of “presence”: the only thing perfectly in shape is the divine, the ideal form. Everything else is striving for its ideal form or shape.  To be real does not mean being in one’s form but becoming one’s form. Human beings are not yet in their finished form like a completed work of art. Human being is “still on the way” to a goal. With this view, “being real” can be still becoming one’s ideal form or already being it, either still moving to perfection (kinesis) or already at rest with one’s fully achieved self (stasis). In the Sefer Yetzirah, the ideal forms or shapes are the Sephirot, the Ten. The being on the way for human beings is the achievement of a unity or a harmony with the emanations of the divine that are the real as revealed through the Sephirot.

This unity or harmony is attained by human beings in a lived context within a world where things (such as the Sephirot) are encountered. A “world” is the matrix of understanding which is intelligibly structured by human interests and purposes. In this world of understanding (what is referred to as Binah in the Sephirot of the Sefer Yetzirah) beings become “meaningfully present” in the world of Yetzirah, one of the four worlds of the Sefer Yetzirah. Yetzirah means “formation”, although it is oftentimes translated as “creation”. In our modern context, it is the world dominated by that form of seeing, knowing and making that is called “technological”.

“The world worlds” i.e., contextualizes things, gives meaning to things found within it by providing the medium whereby they make sense. The meaningful and what it is is what appears in understanding and what allows it to appear. The meaningful is what shows up in the understanding of its meaning to human beings. “Presence” is not to be understood as a spatio-temporal “out there” but as what is “significant” to us, meaningful to us. The word parousia, so important in understanding the Sefer Yetzirah, is what means “near to our concerns though far away in distance”. This meaning is also to be considered with its other meanings of “between”, “alongside”.

What constitutes the meaning of things is the context of human involvement within which those things are met, the matrix of human purposes ordered to human interests and to human survival i.e., a world. This is the world of Yetzirah. Each human world discloses or unlocks the meanings that can occur to the things found within a world. A world discloses by providing a sense of possible relations in terms of which the things as they appear get their significance. In the language of the Sefer Yetzirah these are the ‘paths’ or ‘the gates’ that are travelled or met on the soul’s journey. (This is not to deny that the thing itself has its own telos or purpose outside of human involvement. This is dealt with in the discussion of the beauty of the world in another segment.)

Human beings live in many distinct worlds at the same time, but they are encompassed by the One world. A mother can make business calls from home while rocking her baby to sleep. Each world – her job, her parenting – has the function of providing the range of possibilities among the sense-making activities within its specific area.

You will note that meaning is to be derived in the lived world from the practical activities within that world. The Greeks understood this as praxis i.e., the activity of the parent, student, athlete, artist, and it is from these activities that one could attain “splendour” or “social prestige” through proficiency in the knowledge and skills required in those activities, the “know how”. “Know how” was called techne by the Greeks.

A world is any place wherein human beings live out their interests and purposes, the “relations” whereby the things within that domain get their meaning and significance. A world is a range of human possibilities in terms of which anything within that context can have significance. All such possibilities are teleologically (limited, possible of completion) ordered to human beings by way of fulfilling human purposes; however, in the perfection of their imperfection, human beings still hold a belief in the possibility of re-uniting with the Good wherein they will find their own “completion”. The world, the relational context which constitutes the meaning which is ordered by Love, is ordered to the final cause of human fulfillment that lets things in our everyday world make sense. This is the manner in which the relations between the Sephirot, the paths, and the gates are to be understood and interpreted in the Sefer Yetzirah. Meaning is given in the hierarchical order given to things in their relation to the Good. It is the Good which makes us give priority to our world of parenting over our world of business or the job, or to give priority to study rather than to merely whiling our time away in mindless pleasures and activities.

There is a fundamental difference between the meaningful thing and its meaning i.e., between any particular instance and its class, between a Sephirot and the thing or event it signifies, between the Tarot card and the experience it illuminates. Things do not come with their meanings built into them but get made as meaningful. Discursive meaning, meaning that is obtained by knowledge and reason and is able to be communicated to others, is a synthesis between distinct elements that are synthesized into a meaningful whole. Affirming that so and so is an athlete assumes that she does not exhaust the class “athlete” – she and the class are distinct – even though she can be identified, in a synthesis, as being a member of that class. In analyzing “world”, the structure of synthesizing and distinguishing (dianoia and diaresis) relates not only to the random acts of making sense (e.g., “She is an athlete” – an assertion), but also towards the world itself where such athletic acts are performed. Synthesis and differentiation (what Plato termed dianoia and diaresis) is the condition of all discursive sense-making. (See the discussion of Plato’s Divided Line in the Appendix to the “Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah.”)

“World” is both static and dynamic, at rest and in motion. The world as static is the place of meaningfulness. Viewed dynamically, the world is the placing of things in meaning. This placing of things in meaning is done through the logos: contextualizing things within a set of possibilities that makes things able to be known and used in terms of their possibilities. “Being” as static is “presence”; taken as dynamic it is the “presenting” of things, the act of allowing things to be meaningfully present. This letting things be meaningfully present is done through Love acting as it does through sight which allows the things to be seen meaningfully.

The place where things become meaningful is in “the open that opens things up”. For Aristotle, “the soul” is the topos eidon, “the place where meaning shows up”. In the static world, it is the open field in which all forms of meaningfulness occur. (The Chariot card of the Tarot in the Rider-Waite deck, for example, is placed in an open field, outside the city.) In the dynamic world, this open area opens things up for possible use and appropriation i.e., makes them accessible and significant, lets them “be”. In Greek philosophy, the condition of “being open” indicates imperfection (the circle being the highest form and circular motion being higher than linear motion, for instance). Closure, self-closure upon one’s self would be the realization of all one’s possibilities, perfection, completion, accomplishment. This end is not possible for human beings in time. The meaning-giving-world is open rather than closed. It can never be fully known. Human being is always incomplete and finite.

Our “making sense” is always a partial synthesis for there is always an element of tension or “strife” in the area of “difference” and in the in-betweenness and mediation. Meaningfulness requires mediation (the logos) in order to make possible the relations that connect – these tools to that task, for instance. The pre-requisite for mediation is a medium, a field of possible relations within which the connections can be made. When static, the world understood as the logos, is the medium of intelligibility. In its dynamic state, the world as medium mediates tools and tasks (as well as subjects and predicates in language and reason) to each other with the result that sense or meaning occurs. The meaningfulness is never a perfect unity but always exists within a “strife” or tension.

According to Aristotle, what we understand as “freedom” is the power that “empowers” things in the static world to open themselves up to their various possibilities and potentialities. In the dynamic world, the “free” frees the things of the world and the power “empowers” their significance. In this world of Yetzirah, insofar as the world is one of relations between tools and their possible utility, language and number become the tools that are used to liberate those tools from their “just thereness” by revealing their suitability for fulfilling this or that purpose. For Plato, it is the Good that makes intelligibility possible, for it is the medium between the person’s ability to understand and the ability of the form’s eidos to be understood.

In the static presence of being, the opening is that region which clarifies things, the area of unfolding that lets them appear. Their emergence in this opening is a coming-forth or a stepping-forth. It is the light (love) which brings things to presence; but in order to do so, there must be an opening that allows the light in. In the allegory of the Cave in Plato, the opening is that of the Cave to the light of the Sun; the Cave itself is physis or Nature. In the dynamic state, the light brings clarity to things by letting light shine on them and show themselves as this or that. Aletheia or truth is the self-unfolding of the static world itself. The dynamic unfolding is the bringing of them into meaning. Physis is the world’s arising or self-emergence. In its dynamis, it is the emergence that brings things forth into the open where they can appear as this or that.

What is the source of meaningfulness? The open that opens things up through love (care, concern), the clearing that clarifies them, the ever-present presence that allows things their meaning is determined by what we think our “treasure” is. It can be the freedom that empowers (power itself for its own sake) or it can be the love of the beauty of “otherness” that enables the “letting be” of things to be as they are. In the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word…” shows that Christ is both “world” and “word”, and as Love it is through Him that all things come into being. Things that do not come into being through Him are but “shadows”. One question that arises is whether or not the opening of world, the ontological movement of human beings that opens up the clearing for the parousia of being (Christ’s “presence” within the world), is a human doing or whether it is a receiving of a gift from outside of the human being, a gift from the God.

In Aristotle, kinesis or movement is “perfect” when it is a “self-possessed” movement: a thing is perfect or complete when it possesses its telos “wholeness”, “ownness” and it does so by being a finished work. Every entity is perfect to the degree that it has come into its own. The imperfect is what is still striving to fulfill its essence. We participate in a goal without fully possessing it. You speak some French even if not perfect French; you strive in your studies for “A’s” though you have not arrived there yet. Participation without full possession is deficient or a-teles, still coming into its own. Aristotle says “becoming is for the sake of Being”. The telos of the thing actively moves the thing. This is contrary to Plato who states that the Good is beyond Being and the Good is the telos of all Being and beings and moves all beings and Being.

Everything in Aristotle’s universe is either telic (reached its limits) or erotic (deprived, in need). When the thing is telic, it is wholly present informing and fulfilling the thing. When not, it is still drawing the thing from within, not to anything outside of itself, but towards its own fulfillment. Self-fulfillment is what Aristotle means by “the good”. The telos moves by being desired (the good). We are erotic creatures because self-fulfillment is what we long for. A moved thing is drawn on by its telos and human being is self-moved by its own desire for self-fulfillment. Human being is defined by its absence from perfection and is equally its erotic presence to perfection. Absence (relative but not absolute – deprivation – the desired telos) draws us to ourselves. Absence gives (lets be; allows for; is the source of) Presence. Our imperfect presence is the gift of the presence-bestowing-absence.

This ontological condition is shown in how we comport ourselves in our everyday dealings. Ari is studying for the IB Diploma: that is his raison d’etre at the moment. The Diploma is relatively absent yet but, as desired, gives Ari his presence, the world of meaning in which he currently lives, that of being an “IB Diploma student”. The absent Diploma which is desired but still unattained bestows presence. It gives world to Ari.

What kind of presence does human beings’ self-absence give? In the world of Sefer Yetzirah, becoming and perfection are paradoxically tied together. We may understand it in Plato’s words that “Time is the moving image of eternity”. The becoming that is Time is the absence of the perfection of God. God is perfectly perfect having always attained perfection being eternal. There is no becoming in God. God’s absence in His creation is to be understood as such: by withdrawing, God allows the beings to be in their presence. If there is no withdrawal, there are no beings since all would be perfectly perfect, a One. The telos for human beings then becomes unity with the Divine. In the world of Yetzirah, the wood for a table participates in its future perfection, but deficiently. It is still being moved towards its fulfillment, and once it reaches it, the movement of becoming a table will stop.

For human beings, the paradox expresses itself in that we are the perfectly imperfect creature in our incompleteness. Human beings can never attain completeness or perfection in the future because human beings are finite creatures i.e., in Time. Human being is always becoming a this or a that, yet it is always human being. It is itself “a moving image of eternity”. The difference between a table and a human being is that a table’s becoming will cease once the construction reaches its goal, whereas human beings’ becoming is directed toward the Good itself. The question is always whether or not there is such an end or whether human beings’ becoming is an end in itself. Whereas God is always whole and perfect and in a state of rest, his Creation is whole and perfect in its state of infinite motion. Human being is going nowhere because it is always where it is supposed to be, in its state of coming-into-its-own. For the Sefer Yetzirah, Adam is the first human being because he was the first being capable of discourse. Human being is neither progress over time (as in change of place, quality or quantity i.e., “evolution”), nor ontological transformation into something it essentially was not before (as in the case of substantial change). Human beings’ perfection is to be imperfect.

For the Greeks, reality is not only a matter of perfection (coming-into-one’s-own) but also a matter of “showing forth” and “appearing” – being present and accessible. Being and truth are interchangeable. The greater the thing’s degree of being, the greater its degree of meaningfulness in the double sense of its ability to know itself and others and to be known by itself and others. This “knowability” is the danger tied to “social prestige” as the illusion when the Good is mistaken and understood as Necessity.

Meaningfulness comes in different degrees at different levels of perfection. Human being is only partially knowing and knowable. For Aristotle, knowing is being one with that which is known. The erotic desire for the good is bestowed by its absence. For imperfect human beings, the degree of their presence to the relatively absent telos gives them their measure of knowing and knowability. The relatively absent goal, to the degree that it is desired, gives the moving entity its degree of ability to make sense of things. Human beings know mediately by bonding with the knowable in a matrix of mediating relationships. Human being makes sense of itself and others only by way of world (logos).

Insofar as human beings are imperfect, needing beings, that need is a longing and a desire for belonging even if there is nothing to belong to and no some thing else to long for. Human being (best depicted in the Tarot card The Chariot) is held in the strife between difference and synthesis, and human being is this strife. Human being is world logos the zoon logon echon the living being capable of speech, thought. Eros pulls human being into its openness. As drawn out and opened up by its own need, its imperfection, human being frees things from the area of unintelligibility into the clearing and clarifies them, and the unifying of difference draws them into meaningful entities. When human being appears as what it is, it is not just the place where meaning appears but the very appearing of appearance, and is human being is capable of apprehending the source of meaning: the aitia, arche, and logos – the cause of, source of, and reason for appearance in the first place. This is its salvation. We are moved by eros (not ourselves: it is done to us) and in this moving world occurs. We are the always near but never arriving being.

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

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

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

Why an Alternative Approach is Necessary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CT 1: Knowledge and The Empowering/ Empowered Self:

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

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

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

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

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

Immanuel Kant

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

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

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

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

Martin Heidegger

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

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

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

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

The Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing the November 2018 Prescribed Titles for TOK Essays


Deconstructing the November 2018 TOK Essay Titles

TOKQuestionA 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.

My notes 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. 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. 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.

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.

  1. Existing classification systems steer the acquisition of new knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The key concepts that need to be examined in and deconstructed from this title are “existing classification systems”, “steering”, “acquisition” and “new knowledge”. You should explore some “knowledge questions” or “problems” that arise from the use of this language in the title: what do these key concepts mean?

When we speak of “existing classification systems”, we are speaking of our “shared knowledge” and how it has been articulated to us in the Areas of Knowledge or in the various domains of knowledge. “Classification” as a means of organizing knowledge has been bequeathed to us in the West from Aristotle. Its grounding or its first principles are in the way the whole of things is viewed, the “theoretical”. The word “theory” comes from the Ancient Greek theōría, “contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at”;  from theōréō, “I look at, view, consider, examine”, from theōrós, “spectator”, from théa, “a view” + horáō, “I see, look”. The Greeks saw this “viewing” as a two way viewing–the world looks at us and we look back at the world for the word “theory” also derives from théo, “the god”, or the first things. We move from this “theoretical viewing” of the whole, the theory, to the individual things themselves, how the things are brought to light so that they may be defined, placed within a “framework”, from “genus” to “species” or from genre to text for example. So Aristotle’s works are entitled “On Physics”, “On the Ethics” and so on. What the physics and the ethics are is already pre-determined.

The grounding of this “classification system” is in the principle of reason (“nothing is without reason”, “nothing is without a reason” or a “cause”) whose first principle is the principle of non-contradiction: something cannot both be something and be something other than itself at one and the same time. While this principle of reason rules, some thing may be “defined”. To define something is to render it in language, to give an account of it so that it may be shared with others, be discussed, and become “knowledge”. Whether the language of the account of the thing is words or mathematical symbols does not matter: to become knowledge, some thing needs language in order for it to be shared and in order for it to be called “knowledge”. Our word “reason” comes from the Latin ratio which means “to render an account” i.e. to provide the “reasons” for some thing being as it is.  You are doing this in the writing of your essay.

The world of “alternative facts”, for example, is a denial of the principle of reason and of language and its account of things; it is a denial of humanity since human beings are the animal rationale (the “rational” animal) and of the Greek’s definition of human being as the zoon logon echon, the animal who possesses language (or is possessed by language). The possible implications and consequences of this are, obviously, extremely great and are extremely serious.

Reason and language are the two ways of knowing operational in “classification systems”. A good question for exploration is “what role does sense perception play in the creation of a classification system” and how our sense perception determines and is determined by the manner in which we define and classify some thing as what it is and the things about us as what they are. The classification of the thing brings the thing “to light”, to presence as what it is. When I find “Gone With the Wind” in the science section of the library, I know that an error has been made and that the book, the “thing”, has been misplaced. If one is uncertain about the nature of a book, for example, and that it might be possible to include it under two different classifications or sections of the library, then two books are required because “some thing cannot both be and not be itself at the same time”. The same might be said of the example of “parallel universes” from “string theory” in modern physics where the universe that is “parallel” must be different from the universe experienced by the observer because if they are not then they are one and the same universe, though one would have to examine how the principle of reason is operating there in this example from this AOK.

How has what we have come to call “knowledge” come about? From the title, the “definitions” of the “what” and the “how” of things, what they are and how they are (their limits, their horizons: de-fin-ition “that which is responsible for ascribing the limits of things to the things” so that they can come to be known by being represented through language) has been pre-determined ahead of time before the search for knowledge can begin or was begun i.e. what is a stone, what is a plant, what is a human being are questions that have already been answered in some way. These answers have come about through the “theoretical” viewing that has already provided the definitions of the things that are to be researched in the AOK. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, determines how human and other living beings are to be defined beforehand before the research is even begun and this defining determines the methodology that will be used in the approach to the “things” under study. It is the “theoretical” viewing that “steers” i.e. provides the direction, the guidance and the goal to the “acquisition”, the “possession” of knowledge, the “grasping” of the “new knowledge” which we have come to call “results” or “information”. Whether results and information are “new knowledge” are questions that could also be reflected upon. The use and abuse of statistics in the Human Sciences could be an example to be explored when examining the acquisition of “new knowledge” in those subject areas.

The “knowledge framework” of TOK is one such example of a classification system and you may wish to discuss the “why is classification necessary” as a possible approach to the title. The “what” and the “how” of the things within any classification system have been defined and these definitions are based on a pre-determined viewing of the things themselves. These pre-determined approaches to the viewing of things provide us with our “shared knowledge” and they are based on reason and language as WOKs. From the “viewing” comes the methodology of the approach to the thing or the comportment to the thing which is different in each AOK: you do not enter a Group One class with the same view of things that you use to enter a Group Four class because in each case a different view of “truth” is in operation. That Group One and Group Three subjects as AOKs aspire to finding and using a theory and a methodology that will give them the same “certainty” and surety of the things they “research” as in the Group 4 subjects is another area that might be reflected upon and from which many knowledge questions might arise.

Whether we are talking about the Dewey Classification System that rules in many of our libraries as a way of containing and organizing the knowledge therein or the knowledge contained in the classic Newtonian interpretation of Nature and its physics, any “new knowledge” of the new thing (whether the thing has been made, imagined, or simply proposed) will have to be “defined” first and then the thing is given its place, its “stand”, within the pre-existing definitions that have determined what things are beforehand. This determination of place is what is known as “judgement” and it is in the judgement that we have determined the “truth” of what the thing is and how the thing is to be “brought to light”. When we cannot define the thing that is before our viewing, when we cannot make a judgement regarding the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the thing, then we do not have knowledge of the thing, we cannot “be-hold”, grasp the thing. The thing remains obscure, ambiguous. In the Arts, for example, “classifying” the poet and artist William Blake remains a difficulty because his work and thought resist “classification”.

You may wish to explore how we have come to view all things as “objects” which are only given their “thingness” through human beings because we have determined that they are useful to us in some way; if something is of no “use” to us in some way, then it is discarded. “Things” are “disposables”. This view of the world was not present in other civilizations at other times and in other places and one may wish to explore examples from Indigenous Knowledge Systems for counter arguments. But in all and any “system”, classification rules.

It is the viewing (the already pre-determined “theoretical”, theory) which “steers” or guides/directs our comportment to the thing and determines the method or approach to how the thing is to be understood by us through our giving it its meaning through a definition i.e. through language. The thing has to be defined first before it can be “classified” as some thing. The “things” of modern physics are not things at all in our traditional understanding of a thing: they are mathematical definitions which attempt to give a representation of what is experienced in the experiment conducted. An atom, for instance, is not a “thing” as we understand a thing; it is a mathematical description or representation. If we represent atoms to ourselves as some thing along the lines of the Rutherford model, we are simply living in fantasy: atoms do not behave in the way that model tries to represent them. The same can be said about many other quantum entities and definitions such as “wave-particles”, etc. The “results” or “information”, which in many cases is simply the representation of the thing explored, must be reported mathematically in physics in order for others to be able to pursue any “acquisition” or “take possession of” any “new knowledge” in this AOK.

2. “Technology provides ever-expanding access to shared knowledge. Therefore, the need to assimilate such knowledge personally is relentlessly diminishing.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Title #2 is one of the more challenging titles provided in this year’s list since it contains one of the more or less controversial statements, but this should not deter you from taking a shot at it. The key concepts involved in it are “technology”, “ever-expanding access”, “shared knowledge”, “assimilate such knowledge personally” and “diminishing”. One might also include “to what extent” and “agreement” in your exploration of this title.

First of all, “technology” is viewed as an instrument or tool (our phones, tablets, PCs and the Web) in the title (or is it?), but it should be viewed as a way of knowing in itself. If we remember our Venn diagram describing the TOK course, the overlapping portions of the two circles describing our personal and shared knowledge can be considered our WOKs (ways of knowing) or the manner in which we access and “assimilate” or take possession of the knowledge that is available to us through our shared knowledge. “Shared knowledge” is what  we may generally consider to be the AOKs or anything else which might fall on the outside of ourselves as “object”. You will notice that in order for technology to work as a means of gaining access to knowledge requires that a “classification system” of some kind with regard to this knowledge must already be in existence and operational (back to title #1). The machine or tool being used “works” because it is based on the principle of reason, and its coming to presence required the principle of reason. The essence of technology, what technology is, is nothing “technological” just as the essence of “house” is not to be found in the particular houses that we see about us in the world about us.

But the title suggests that “Technology makes stupid”, or at least encourages “intentional ignorance” in that it suggests that if the knowledge available to us is not really important to us personally then that knowledge is “useless”, has no “use” for us. But what makes “knowledge” important to us? What is it about the essence of knowledge that should make it important to us? In our “judgements” about what knowledge is and what makes that knowledge important to us personally, it is a very limited “knowledge” for us  because the only knowledge of concern to us is knowledge that we can use personally to achieve “results”, our own ends. “Importance” implies “values”, how something is valued and why it is valued, a “judgement” regarding the thing in question. Many examples from today’s news can be used to discuss the consequences of this approach to knowledge or you may simply reflect on why you are looking at this website to begin with…Is your concern for “knowledge” in and of itself or for some “knowledge” that will help you to achieve the best results, knowledge that is personally valuable to you?

This view of “knowledge” as results (information) arises from the belief that knowledge is merely “information”. In+form+ation: “-ation” is from the Greek aitia and means “that which is responsible for” when referring to a type of causation, what I have called the principle of reason in the discussion on title #1 above; “form” is the shape, the limits or the horizons of the thing (so that it moves from being merely “data”), the definition of the thing, that will determine where-“in” the “classification system” the thing shall be placed so that it may “inform”. So “information” means that which is responsible for the “form” (the representation) of the thing so that it may “inform”. One can see how title #1 impacts an understanding of title #2: in the view of knowledge as information, classification rules and technology as a tool for accessing knowledge can only be used where classification rules (think about your search engines). 

Access to shared knowledge is not knowledge itself; all of you have access to the library or to the vast wealth of information and knowledge that is available on the Internet. The knowledge must be “assimilated” or taken possession of, grasped, be-held, for it to become knowledge; it must change the human being taking possession of it in some way. It must “empower” the person in some way.

“Specialization” becomes a pre-requisite for such a view of knowledge as “information” since it is not possible for a human being to have knowledge of the all of the specifics that are within the whole. Garry Kasparov will always be defeated by Big Blue in a game of chess because he cannot possibly contain in his mind all of the potential moves that are available on a chess board at one and the same time, something which the computer is able to do. That’s because the moves on a chess board are finite and the moves of the individual pieces (their classifications and their results when carried out) ultimately limit the number of possibilities of their outcomes even though these may be in the hundreds of millions. The computer is simply a much better, quicker, more efficient calculator than Mr. Kasparov could ever hope to be. But Mr. Kasparov’s life shows that he is much more than merely being a great “calculator” himself.

One could say parenthetically that the coming to be of the instruments of technology out of the essence of technology itself is the greatest revolution to have occurred with regard to the accessibility to knowledge since the invention of the Gutenberg press. It may, in fact, be much greater. The accessibility to knowledge and the assimilation of such knowledge must be through the ways of knowing in some fashion.

But what happens to human beings within such a view of knowledge? Technology is a way of knowing in itself and a way of being in the world for human beings; and human beings themselves are this technology for this is how they access their knowledge and what they believe their truth to be; for knowledge is intimately connected with truth and it is this belief in the truth of the judgements that are made that determines how things will be viewed since it is “truth” which brings things “to light” to a greater or lesser extent as ‘what’ and ‘how’ they are.

“To what extent” indicates that there is a pre-determined standard (truth), a viewing, against which your response can be measured. It indicates that a hierarchy is already assumed and is being applied and this hierarchy rests in what is called “the  correspondence theory of truth” which is a necessary off-shoot of the principle of reason. One possible question: Is the knowledge that is to be obtained contained in the things that are viewed or in the viewing itself? And is not the technological viewing suggested by the title a “diminishing” or dimming of the light or is it an offer of even greater light than what was present before?

3. Are disputes over knowledge claims within a discipline always resolvable? Answer this question by comparing and contrasting disciplines taken from two areas of knowledge.

With title #3 it is important for you to recognize the instructions that are given to you in advance. You are being told to “compare and contrast” two disciplines from two AOKs i.e. you are to look at how the theoretical viewing in two different disciplines (subject areas) produces what is called knowledge in those disciplines ( or whether what is called knowledge in those disciplines is really knowledge at all) and discuss whether or not these disputes can be resolved.

If you reflect for a moment on all the ‘disputes’ that you have had in your class discussions in TOK, these disputes arose over either the efficacy and correctness of the viewing (the theory—was the seeing correct and were the initial explicit and implicit assumptions made in the viewing correct; did the viewing and the thing being viewed “correspond”) or whether or not the questions of the ‘what’, the ‘how’, and the ‘why’ of the things were correctly and sufficiently arrived at and defined i.e. were sufficient reasons given in the responses.  All disputes, including disputes over methodology, arise over the theoretical viewing itself, that is the theory or the propositions being made from within the theory, or over the definitions of the things that have appeared or come to presence through the viewing that is the theory.

Perhaps the greatest dispute currently is in the AOK Natural Sciences in the area of physics between the followers of Einstein’s theory of special relativity and those of the quantum mechanics’ viewing of the nature of things. This dispute involves fundamental differences in how things come to appearance in the theoretical viewing and how the things are to be defined, interpreted and are to be understood i.e. how the thing is to become a ‘fact’ through its account in mathematical language. Exploring this dispute will provide you with a great deal of material that involves the WOKs and the AOKs, principally reason, sense perception and language as WOKs and plenty of examples of past and current experimental attempts to resolve disputes about time, space, matter, velocity, etc. in the fields of astrophysics, molecular biology, and sub-atomic physics are available. In exploring this example, the use of the “knowledge framework”, particularly the areas of historical background and the language used, would be a fruitful approach to arriving at some interesting content and examples for the body of your essays.

Another AOK which would provide fruitful explorations would be History and views of contrary ‘theories’ on the judgements made (the definitions, the “values”) of the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of the interpretations of the things (data) so that what are determined to be called ‘historical facts’ can be known. Examinations of the grounds of ‘revisionist history’ and other so-called ‘modern’ views of history can be applied (theory) to explore how different conclusions have been arrived at from the assumptions that have been used in the theoretical seeing of the things that are even if these things are the same. Using the “knowledge framework” to approach how the definitions of historical ‘things’ has been arrived at might be a useful approach. Such a discussion would have plenty of concrete examples to explore given our time and social contexts.

Remember to avoid the clichéd examples that have been used in the past.

In the Arts, one can look at how the questions “what is a work of art?” or “what is Art?” have been answered in this AOK, that is, how they have become “knowledge claims”. The primary view (theory) of art today is that of “aesthetics”, the human making of beauty and the work of art as “object”. Other cultures prior to our own did not view art as “aesthetics” so an exploration of how this view arose and what its implicit and explicit assumptions are could be fruitful.

How different schools of thought have answered the questions of what art is, what beauty is and what are the best methodologies to use to “analyze” the work of art can be explored, but remember that these viewings of art are all done within the predominating “aesthetic” view. I have always enjoyed discussing the question “If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what then is beholding?” You will notice that “beholding” is the looking or viewing that gives presence to something (“be”) so that it may be grasped or taken possession of (“be+hold”) and so in that way it can become “knowledge”. But what kind of knowledge is it? what knowledge do we get from a work of art?

The whole issue of “subjectivity” in the arts can be explored, but this is rather a slippery question and requires some knowledge of what is meant by both “subjectivity” and “objectivity” and their historical development. The viewing of art as “aesthetics” is historically concurrent with the arrival of what we call “modern science”. What might be their connection and how is it related to the “viewing” in both AOKs?

4. “Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge” (Lao Tzu). Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

What “knowledge” and “prediction” are will be the two key concepts that need to be discussed in any paper that chooses this title. Also, the AOKs chosen to be discussed will need to be carefully considered. It appears to me that the Natural Sciences, History and the Arts might be best considered as AOKs for a discussion of this prescribed title, but Religious Knowledge Systems and Indigenous Knowledge Systems could also provide some interesting examples.

Clearly, the understanding of what knowledge is that is attributed to Lao Tzu here is quite distinct from what we understand and call knowledge today, what you are studying in the IB program for instance. What we call “robust knowledge” today is that knowledge which is able to make “predictions”, the predictions which help us to master, control and commandeer nature for our own ends. Is Lao Tzu speaking of general or specific predictions in this quotation? What type of predicting and predictions does he mean?

Avoid providing a source for the statement and a long introduction into who Lao Tzu was.

Lao Tzu did not have knowledge of what we understand as modern science or of technology. In the West, the Greeks distinguished between five types of knowledge which have been passed down to us as part of our “shared knowledge”: 1) sophia or knowledge of the divine or the first things; 2) episteme or knowledge of what we call axioms, first principles, laws, rules etc. which bring about and determine our theoretical viewing; 3) techne or “know how” or “knowing one’s way about or within something” or “being at home in something”; 4) phronesis or knowledge of deliberation about the things that are relevant and pertinent to ourselves in our day-to-day living, what we call ‘practical reason’; and 5) nous  or noetic knowledge or what we have come to call “intelligence”. It is not clear from the statement in the quote what type of knowledge Lao Tzu is referring to. What type of knowledge is unable to make predictions? or What type of knowledge has no wish to make predictions?

To provide an example from the Natural Sciences (should you choose this AOK), two quotes from Werner Heisenberg, one of the co-founders of quantum mechanics, are appropriate here: 1) “What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.  Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.“–Werner Heisenberg. The second quote runs: 2) “We [physicists] have resigned ourselves to the situation just described, since it turned out that we could represent mathematically and say in every case, dependably and without fear of logical contradiction, what the result of an experiment would be. Thus we resigned ourselves to the new situation the moment we could make dependable predictions. Admittedly, our mathematical formulas no longer picture nature but merely represent our own grasp of nature. To that extent, we have renounced the type of description of nature that was customary for centuries and that had been valid as the self-evident goal of all exact natural science. Even provisionally, we cannot say more than that in the field of modern atomic physics we have resigned ourselves, and we have done so because our representations are dependable.” (Werner Heisenberg, “The Picture of Nature in Contemporary Physics”)

From the two quotes from Heisenberg there seems to be some agreement between Lao Tzu and today’s scientists, but this agreement rests on the fact that Heisenberg is saying that today’s scientists do not have knowledge. But whereas we most emphatically believe in our ability to make predictions as most important for what we have come to call knowledge, this is not what knowledge is for Lao Tzu. What Heisenberg indicates is that what we have traditionally referred to as Nature and what is studied in modern physics are not the same thing. We do not have knowledge and cannot have knowledge of what has traditionally been understood as Nature according to Heisenberg but this is not important so long as we have the ability to make predictions with great precision and can rely on this knowledge as “useful” for us.

In the AOK History, we study history not for knowledge of the past but to make predictions about the future. The Greeks had a wonderful statement: “The future comes to meet us from behind” and this statement sums up what the purpose of studying history is: to know the future from the study of what has occurred in the past. Clearly, a history that goes beyond simply making theoretical statements of past events does so in order to make predictions about future events. But how does this relate to Lao Tzu’s statement? Is the ability to make predictions part of what we consider what is most important to be known?

In the Arts, the literary genre of science fiction is rife with making predictions of the future. The dystopian novels of Margaret Atwood, for instance, do not make specific predictions but rather consider “what if” scenarios as possibilities for a possible future. Many more examples can be found and I’m sure that you know of some from your own studies and personal experience. Be sure to make use of your own studies and personal examples if that is possible and they are relevant to this title.

For another example from the AOKs of Group 3, let us return to Plato’s cave for a moment in order to try to get a better grasp of what Lao Tzu might mean by “knowledge”. We can see from the above descriptions given by Heisenberg that today’s scientists exemplify the prisoners of the cave when it comes to providing a “likeness of our nature, with regard to that which is behind the shadows. They are ignorant of the nature of that which they see”. They have been in this condition since childhood; it is their shared knowledge from their historical and cultural contexts. Many are unaware that the shadows are shadows. They are, nevertheless, learned. They record very well the order of succession and simultaneity in what they see which enables them to make predictions; and those who are capable of making predictions are honoured in their Cave. The cave-dwellers honour the prisoner “who best remembers which of the shadows customarily pass by prior to others, which succeed others, and which appear simultaneously, and who thereby has the greatest power of prophesying which shadows will come next” (Republic 516c-d). The mastery of the shadows, despite the ignorance of their true nature, is all that counts for the cave-dwellers. We today award them Nobel Prizes. They are content with their learning (such as it is) and would even do violence to anyone who attempted to release them from their bondage to the shadows (517a). Mastery, the power to predict, is more honoured than insight into the object of the mastery. The resignation of the scientists as pointed out by Heisenberg is the contentment of the prisoners of the cave whose knowledge of predictability and dependability makes up for the lack of knowledge of the object of their studies, but this “knowledge” nevertheless helps them alleviate the human condition: “Thus we have resigned ourselves to the new situation the moment we could make dependable predictions.” Our computers and nano-technology are products/results of Heisenberg’s physics. There is, obviously, a great deal of room for discussion here with regard to examples that could be used and definitions of knowledge that could be arrived at.

5.“Too much relevant knowledge in a field might be a hindrance to the production of knowledge in that field.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

When looking at the key concepts in this title, the choice of the AOKs that will be discussed and the WOKs used in those AOKs “to produce knowledge” are what should be given consideration. “Produce” is an interesting word in that its understanding can imply its use and meaning as either a noun, gerund or a verb. As a noun, it is the final outcome of some process, a cause and effect process, usually understood as a natural process; so for example we go to the supermarket and buy the “produce” that is on our weekly grocery list i.e. carrots, potatoes, rice, etc. We do not refer to the things made by human beings as “produce”; we refer to them as “products”: human beings are not capable of making or bringing forth “produce”. In its gerund form, we can speak of the “work” as the end “product” of the process of “producing, production”. You are writing an essay: the writing is the process of production; the essay is the product or “work”, the outcome. Through your work, you are going to “bring to presence” something that was not there before. We sometimes (often) refer to this as “creating” but it is really a “making”, what the Greeks called “techne”, the kind of “know how” that is present in the work that is “in another and for another”: we make things either for ourselves or for others; in the case of your essay it is “for another” i.e. the IB. So the “production of knowledge in that field” is the bringing about of some thing that is “for another”, of some thing that will become part of our “shared knowledge” because your essay is or will become “public”. As a verb, to produce is “to bring about an effect”, to cause something, and it operates on the principle of reason (“nothing is without a cause, nothing is without reason). Your “work”, your efforts, your expenditure of energy, will bring forth a “work” i.e. an essay. In this work, the final product, the essay, determines what the approach is going to be and what selection process will be used to determine what is “relevant knowledge” and what is not. You will be using reason and language as ways of knowing to bring forth this product called an essay. Hopefully, it will be “knowledge”.  What type of “knowledge” will it be? I’m sure many of you are finding all the information available to you regarding your selected topic is more of a “hindrance” than a help to your ultimate goal of bringing forth, producing, an essay. I hope these comments are not a “hindrance”!

The role of imagination and language in the Arts as WOKs in the “production” of a work of art be it a novel or a sculpture or the production of a drama might be something you may want to consider. If a work of art is the “product” of the artist’s “experiences”, and this “product” is “knowledge”, what aspect of these experiences would constitute “too much relevant knowledge” and what is the “selection process” that is being used to determine what is relevant knowledge? What determines the selection of the materials that are “relevant” to the “production” of the work and which are not? How is a work of art “knowledge”? These are just some of the questions that might be considered, but be sure that any responses to them are linked to the “hindrance” aspect of the title or the contrary position that they are a “help”.

When we consider knowledge as a “product” or something that can be “produced”, we are looking at some thing that we as human beings are responsible for. But if we look at our example of the farmer who brings his ‘produce’ to market, clearly he himself is not responsible for the products or outcomes. He has a nurturing role to play in the final outcome (“the produce”), but oranges grow on trees, not farmers. Applying this same metaphor to the Arts and artists, are they primarily responsible for the “work” or is something greater involved and the artist’s role is, like the farmer, that of a “nurturer”? Is this “something greater” the biggest hindrance to the production of a work of art while at the same time being the greatest help to its possibility and realization?

In the AOK History, how does the “theoretical viewing” determine what knowledge is relevant and which is not? One of the problems for the modern historian is, of course, the availability of too much information. A selection based on a prior decision must be made regarding what details, “facts”, “information” are more important, more relevant and so a hierarchy is at work; all hierarchies are based on some principle. In this selective historical viewing, a hierarchy has already been established in the theoretical viewing which determines the selection of material based on its relevance which, in turn, is based on an outcome that has, in itself, already been pre-determined. Imagination, reason and language are the principle WOKs in the making of the theoretical viewing in History which determines what is “relevant knowledge” with regard to the end that is desired, that has already been chosen i.e. what is to be “produced” or “brought forth”. Is the situation here one where the “effect”, the desired outcome, is actually the “cause” of the production and is “responsible for” the production? You may want to look at examples where a pre-determined “effect” is the cause of what are considered “hindrances” to the production of the work.

Is “information” knowledge and how does information as knowledge differ from a “work” as knowledge? What is this “information” as knowledge about? The answer to these questions are determined by the nature of the viewing or the theory behind the methodology chosen for bringing about the resulting object, whether it be an historical account, a TOK essay, a bridge linking Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland, and so on.

You might want to use inductive reasoning to move from a specific example to the general premise or viewing as you would do or will do in your Oral Presentations when reflecting on your examples here. Is the resulting “effect” really the “cause”?

6. “The importance of establishing incontrovertible facts is overestimated. Most knowledge deals in ambiguity.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The statement used for title #6 is clearly a modern statement regarding what “knowledge” is and what “facts” are. This is a challenging title and caution should be taken in the interpretation and response to this title.

From the previous suggestions to the other titles here, it should be clear that there are no “incontrovertible facts”; it is the theoretical viewing that determines and “establishes”, or grounds what are to be considered facts. Facts are what is agreed upon, what those who share in the viewing can rely upon when making their statements or judgements regarding what something is. The “law of gravity”, for instance, is not a “law” in the sense that it is universal and timeless; it is not a “fact” as that term is usually understood. Modern physics shows the law of gravity not to be the case. Yet no one who is considered sane would challenge the “law of gravity” in the “common sense” experience of the world. The world of common sense and the world of science are two very different worlds because they are based on two very different “world-pictures”, representations or interpretations of the experience of the world. We cannot ‘live’ in the world-picture that is modern science.

The “ambiguity” that is present for us comes about because of the uncertainty we have of our theoretical viewing or that the definitions of the things we experience through this viewing are not what they seem. “Ambiguity” is something aspired to in the Arts because life itself is experienced as this ambiguity. Many world-views are possible and desirable in the Arts because we can “learn” from them and gain knowledge about the nature of human being from them. When we cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge in our automobiles, we hope that the engineer who designed the bridge was not dealing with “ambiguities” but was looking at his world with the certainty and precision provided by the mathematics involved in modern physics as that is described by Werner Heisenberg above. One of the questions is whether or not the purpose or goal of both approaches is one of ‘mastery’ over the worlds that are experienced; to have knowledge of these worlds and world-views is to have mastery over the things that are seen within them. “Technology” is the co-penetration of the arts and sciences as a way of being in the world (techne+ logos) and this way of being has its end in the mastery of the things which are encountered.

In History and the Human Sciences, “research” and the “scientific method” are used because the theoretical viewing requires that the things being studied be defined as what they are and can be mastered and, thus, what they are is less ambiguous for us. We use the scientific method, the projection of the world understood as ‘object’, in order to aspire to lesser ambiguity regarding the definitions of the ‘objects’ that are present in those AOKs so that they may be mastered and used for other purposes. It should be noted that in these areas of knowledge, the mastery regards human beings as the “object” that is to be mastered. “Ambiguity” is present because a final decision or judgement has not been made regarding the object under examination. Is this present “ambiguity” merely subject to “a matter of time” before a decision will be made regarding the nature of the thing being studied and some desired clarity is to be achieved? What is the nature of the knowledge that is present where ambiguity is present? Does knowledge require certainty and surety before it can be considered knowledge?

Remember: “Ambiguity” is not a desired quality for your essay. If there is any ambiguity present, it must be in the form of a “knowledge question”! Clarity in your use of concepts and your definitions of the things you are attempting to represent is what is required.

Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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