Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Plato Cave
Plato’s Cave

Commentary: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

A translation of Plato’s allegory of the cave

Context of the Allegory:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Stages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth, Beauty and Goodness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Personal Knowledge: Understanding the Shadows

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

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

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

Personal Knowledge: The Shadows of our Everydayness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unit Plan: Teaching Plato’s Allegory

Unit Plan: Day 1

Your School’s Cave: What is the “culture” of your school? 

Visual Thinking: “I See, I Wonder, I Think”.

The Visual Thinking strategy has been renamed somewhat (with my apologies). True wonder comes before thought as should our wondering about the manner of our seeing.

Activity 1: Students are separated into groups and are asked to journey throughout the school and identify things, attitudes, etc. that illustrate the “culture of …” around them. Students return and report to the class. Sense perception, emotion, imagination, reason, memory can be explored as ways of knowing and as modes of interpretation. Students return and are placed in groups to discuss what they have discovered. Statements and assertions of what evidence the students find about what they think their school thinks its culture is can be made. Wonder: What is being said about the “values” of what the IB and the school has determined to be important to it? How are these “values” determined and what human activities are necessary for the making of these values explicit?

Activity 2: The David Foster Wallace speech to the graduates of Kenyon College: “This is Water”. Listen to the speech. There are two parts and both parts should be listened to:

What connections can the students make to the culture of their school and the Foster Wallace speech?

Homework Read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In a journal entry write three possible connections between the allegory and the Foster Wallace speech. Prepare to ask questions and discuss the possible comparisons for next class. Students should compose a drawing of what they think their own caves are like.

Unit Plan Day 2:

“TOK is designed to apply a set of conceptual tools to concrete situations encountered in the student’s Diploma Programme subjects and in the wider world outside school. The course should therefore not be devoted to a technical philosophical investigation into the nature of knowledge.” TOK Guide 2015

Unit One (Part 2): Introducing Plato’s Allegory

Begin by showing the PowerPoint which provides a general introduction to Theory of Knowledge.

Four Main Topics:

1: the sort of questions that are asked in TOK (how do we “know” what we “know”? how do we provide explanations of what we know?)

2: the basic assumptions that are involved in how and what we know in the Areas of Knowledge (AoKs) (modern science, the human sciences, history, etc.): the grounds on which these assumptions are based and the limitations of these grounds (the goal of TOK must be to make the implicit assumptions explicit)

3: how we can begin an inquiry into the grounds: reopening the basic questions

4: TOK’s relation to the students’ education and to their future studies

Activity 2: Using Foster Wallace’s metaphor of how our seeing has been ‘hard-wired’ from birth, we will examine the nature of this hard-wiring. We shall do this with a reading of Plato’s allegory of the Cave. Play the video of the allegory:  (You may need to check if the links are still active. If this link is not active, you can find another link that provides the animated version of the allegory). Ask the class what questions they have regarding their reading from their homework and the reading given in the video. Students are usually very puzzled by the reading and video and this is a good sign, not a bad sign. Ask them whether or not they can make any connections to the Foster Wallace speech regarding our ‘hard-wiring from birth’ and the Platonic allegory.

Homework: Students read “Understanding Plato’s Shadows”. Students write a journal reflection relating their understanding of Plato’s allegory to their own cultural exploration and their own drawing of their own caves. How are Plato’s shadows demonstrated in their own lives? Questions they are wondering about should be included in the reflection.


Write a reflection on your own cave. Using the reading passage “Understanding Plato’s Shadows”, note any significant “shadows” that constitute your lives.

Extension: To gain a greater understanding of Plato’s allegory of the Cave, a commentary on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has been provided.

Note: The video may be used to begin the lesson and follow with the PowerPoint or it can be delivered following discussions of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.



Technology as a Way of Knowing:

TOKQuestionInquiring Into the Essence of Technology:

According to the TOK Guide 2015, the TOK course has been developed in order to examine the “conceptual tools” that are used to “produce knowledge”: how we come to know the things that are either in our own experience, our “personal knowledge”, or from the “shared knowledge” that has been handed over to us from our traditions and other social contexts. In looking at the Venn diagram that is used as a model for the course, the overlapping area of the two circles entitled “Personal Knowledge” and “Shared Knowledge” is that open region that we consider to be our Ways of Knowing (WOKs) for it is in this region that what we call “knowledge” comes to be and it is in this area that we experience what we call our “freedom”. This overlapping region could also be called “cognition” or “consciousness”. A third circle might be added to the original two and encompass both and this third circle might be called “world”.

This writing’s objective is to investigate how technology can be said to be a “way of knowing” and as a way of knowing how it determine our “cognition”, our “mindset” and thus how we define ourselves as human beings. What does “freedom” mean in relation to “technology” and why and how do we need to reflect on technology in order to prepare for a “free relationship” to that technology itself?

How do we relate to technology? How do we think about it? What do we imagine it to be? How is technology a “way of knowing”? What is technology’s relationship to reason as a way of knowing and to the principle of reason that determines and drives it? How does technology determine our cognition and thus our understanding of what personal knowledge is and what the things about us are i.e. how does technology determine our current “mindset”, our current “hard wiring”?

How do we stand, or what is our under-standing, with regard to technology? The problems that have arisen and are posed by technology cannot be answered simply by making technology better and we cannot ignore these difficulties simply “by opting” out of technology.

We cannot experience the essence of what technology is so long as we are merely conceiving and pushing forward the technological, putting up with it, or evading it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it. Technology is our fate as human beings. Why and how has this become the case?

In looking for the essence of technology, we will be looking for something that is not “technological”; the essence of technology actually precedes the historical emergence of the “concrete” forms of technology in the 18th and 19th centuries.  To understand the essence of technology and thus our “key concepts” that we use to understand knowledge in our AOKs and through our WOKs, we must go back to Greek philosophy for some guiding concepts to help us with our analysis. Our WOKs, as ways of being in the world, shape how we view our world; and in that shaping both we and the knowledge we produce affect the both the maker and what is made. The essence of technology remains a mystery to us.

Our method of questioning will strive to expose the unexamined assumptions that shape our understanding of the world we live in and the “key concepts” that we use to understand that world. Our purpose is to attain a more “empowering” way of conceiving the world and our place in it, even though we hesitate in using the word “empowering” and must pose it in an ironic mode since the idea of “empowerment” is itself a product of, or a predicate of, the technological world view we want to examine.

Our Current Understanding of Technology:

How do we generally think about technology?  In two ways: 1. technology is a means to an end; 2. technology is a human activity. These answers indicate what is the current “instrumental” (aimed at getting things done) and anthropological (a human activity) definition of technology.  These definitions define technology accurately; however, they do not go far enough. They do not give us the essence of what technology is. (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” trans. Lovitt) We will examine the instrumental and anthropological views of technology more closely in this writing.

Our everyday understanding of technology as instrument has many implicit assumptions that prevent us from understanding more fully our relationship to technology. Even our attempts to maintain control over technology, to master it so that it doesn’t destroy us, are informed by our “instrumental conception” of what technology is. “The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control” (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”). This fear of “loss of control” over technology is emphasized in the current discussions and critiques of Artificial Intelligence or AI.

For a fuller understanding of how humanity stands in relation to technology, we need to consider what we mean by “instrumental”: what assumptions lie behind our understanding of “getting things done” or “achieving our goals”? The basic idea in any attempt to “get something done” is that one thing (e.g. a student in the Arts class) has an effect on something else (the paper, paints, etc. that make up the student’s next piece of work or project). Our effects on other things to achieve an end is sometimes referred to as the application of “algorithms”, a schema or plan for organizing the world we live in. “Algorithms” and the question concerning the meaning of “instrumentality” (tools used to solve problems) leads to an old problem in philosophy: the question of causality. We will look at the role of reason as a WOK as the primary approach to “how” we solve the problems that we encounter.

The original meaning of the Greek techne is “know how”, a feeling of “being at home in” the things that surround us. This understanding can be said to combine our understanding of the word technique or “applications” and the “know how” of the techne. Our applications come after we have already determined what it is that we want to achieve through our technique in the schema or plan which we have already projected onto the world about us. An interpretation of that world is already present so that the techniques will be “applicable” or “appropriate” for the task to be carried out. This suitability is tied in with our understanding of reason as a way of knowing which, in turn, is tied in with our understanding of causality.

Historical Background: The Four Causes: A Tea Ceremony Cup


We will examine the question of causality by examining Aristotle’s understanding of causality and applying his four causes to the making of a tea ceremony cup. For Aristotle, there are four components to what can be understood as causality:

  1. the material cause (clay)
  2. the formal cause (the form; its “cupness”, its “outward appearance”)
  3. the final cause  (the end or purpose for which it is to be used; a tea ceremony)
  4. the efficient cause (the tea cup maker; the artist)

What exactly do we mean by “cause” anyway?  Let us look at a cup prepared for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony to illustrate the traditional model of the four causes. What do these modes of causality all have in common?

Our English word “cause” comes from the Latin word causaCausa stems from the verb meaning “to fall”, and is used to designate “that which brings it about that something turns out as a result in such and such a way”.  Our current use of the word “algorithm” carries this Latin meaning of “cause” within it.

Philosophical tradition traces the doctrine of the four causes back to Aristotle, but the Greek words Aristotle uses are quite different from the later words for “cause” that emphasize effecting as used by the Latins. Instead, the Greek word aition carries the sense of “that which is responsible for something else”, or “that which is obliged to” something else for its being as it is. So our word “education” comes from the Latin educare “to lead out” combined with the Greek suffix aition “that which is responsible for” or “obliged to” something or someone else: education is that to which we are obliged to for the “leading out”. Think of this as our “shared knowledge”. “To educate” means that which is responsible for the leading out (think of Plato’s Cave here), or that which is obliged to something else for the leading out. The “leading out” cannot occur on its own initiative. We have to hear the words “responsible” and “obliging” in a different tonality than what we normally hear these words. Think of these terms in relation to your “shared knowledge”.

tea ceremony cupLet us return to our example of the Japanese tea ceremony cup and try to understand it in a Greek way as opposed to our understanding which comes from a Latin interpretation of the Greeks. The “key concepts” that we use are Latinate in origin because philosophical English language is Latinate in origin.

Clay is the material (hyle) that is shaped into the form (eidos) of “cupness”. Both the clay and the form are responsible for or are obliged to the tea ceremony cup being a cup. These are known as the “material cause” and the “formal cause”, but we must not hear the words as “causes” which bring about “effects”.  The cup has been produced in order to be used in a particular kind of activity—a Japanese tea ceremony. Its existence is determined by this context, which literally defines the cup in the sense that it gives it clear boundaries: it is neither a water glass nor a coffee cup. This drawing of defining boundaries is telos and is responsible, along with the material and the form, for the tea ceremony cup’s existence as a tea ceremony cup and not something else.

Aristotle and the Greeks had no such category as the “causa efficiens”.  Instead of seeing the cupmaker or artist as the agent that “effects” the production of the cup, Aristotle’s model would view the careful consideration of the artist—the logos, a term derived from apophainesthai, “to reveal”—as a kind of point of departure for the cup’s coming into being.  Rather than mastering the material by wrestling it into a particular form, the Greek version of our Japanese artist brings together the various potentialities of clay, the abstractness of “cupness”, and the context in which the cup will serve, and through this method allows the Japanese tea ceremony cup to come into being.

For the Greeks, the way in which the material, the form, the context, and the thought or consideration of the artist all “give themselves up” to the existence of the cup, is bound up with the Greek idea of Being. Giving as a “giving to” the existence of the cup, helps us understand the Greek word aition as “that to which something else is indebted” or “obliged”, “responsible for”. The cup is indebted to the clay, the idea of cupness, and the artist. The artist is responsible for the Japanese tea ceremony cup; the cup is “indebted” to the artist for its being. The artist, in turn, is indebted or obliged to the material and the form for the making of the cup. These are not products of the artist’s mind or “creativity”; they should not be understood as the artist imposing on the material but as being obliged to the material, much as I am obliged to the young student who offers me her seat when I am travelling on the public bus and I respond to her offering with “Much obliged”, “Thank you”.

But what do responsibility and indebtedness mean here?

It should be clear that our method here is to return to earlier and more fundamental meanings of commonly used terms and concepts, what we understand as our “key concepts” or the conceptual tools that we use to understand what we call “knowledge” or to produce what we call knowledge. All of us constantly “skip over” what our words mean (see Language as a WOK) and in this “skipping” gaps are created so that we lose our way (or have lost our way) and become exhausted and despair because of our neglect of the real, original sense of our basic ideas. I’m sure many of you have experienced this “exhaustion” in many of your TOK class discussions.

We do not want to think of “being responsible” or “being indebted” in an overly moralistic manner; we’ll think of them, for the moment, as “to occasion”. We sometimes think of “to occasion” as “to cause” such as “His presence in the room occasioned much concern”. For the Greeks, however, the sense of “responsibility” and “indebtedness” was more “to make present”, in the sense of bringing something that was not present before into time and space, what we mean when we say “to produce” some thing.  Being responsible for is a “bringing that thing into appearance” or “starting something on its way to arrival”.  Think of your oral “presentation” in this fashion: that which is responsible for bringing the event of the present-ation into “presence”. The four causes in the example of the Japanese tea ceremony cup all serve less to “create” the cup than to assist the potential cup in the clay, in the idea of cupness, and in the context of the tea ceremony, in making its appearance. All four causes are contributors to the cup’s appearance and the maker of the cup is not the sole or primary contributor. Our modern emphasis on the human being as the centre of this making is attributable to our historical, Western “humanistic” or “humanism” world view. In this view, the “effect” (the artist’s purpose and the artist himself) are the primary “cause” of the cup’s coming into being.

We have to imagine that the cup is “on its way” to existence; the four ways of “being responsible” help it to “arrive” there. They are responsible for what the Greeks called hypokeiesthai, which designates how something that we see as “present” is made present for us. From the roots of this word comes our word hypothesis and we should remember the relationship of hypothesis to “theory” or the “looking” that is prior to the bringing into “presence”.

White foam cup containing coffee with bubbles on top

Let us look at a second type of cup. Both the tea ceremony cup and the Styrofoam cup contain the form of “cupness” but their material, purpose and sufficient causes are quite distinct. Comparing and contrasting these two cups will give us a much better understanding of causation as it is understood today and how it was understood by Aristotle. With the Styrofoam cup, one can arrive at an understanding of what is meant by technology in the writing here. The essence of technology is shown in the “arrival” of the Styrofoam cup. The cup is a “com-posit” of materials brought together by human beings whose “pose” is to “impose” on Nature in their “com-posing”. Their “bringing together” is of something not found in Nature; the polystyrene molecule is the invention of human beings. The end purpose of the cup, its usefulness, also demonstrates the essence of technology and an understanding of modern human being in the modern world. The cup is intended to be “disposable”.

tea ceremony cupThe Japanese tea ceremony cup represents an arrival or a “bringing into presence” that is of a different essence of technology, an ancient understanding of technology. Whereas the Styrofoam cup is replicable to an unlimited number, the tea ceremony cup is unique. The “bringing forth” of the tea ceremony cup is what the Greeks understood as poiesis. The “bringing forth” of the Styrofoam cup is not a poiesis. What do both these artifacts say about the nature of “bringing forth”? What do these two things “say” about the “cultures” of which they are the products? What is valued as “useful” and not “useful” in the making of these two products in each of the cultures of which they are products?


For the Greeks, this “making present” and “being responsible” is termed poiesis from which our word “poetry” is derived. That the Greeks would designate poiesis as what we understand as poetry shows the regard they held for poets in their society and how important language was in the “making present” of things for them.

Poiesis means “bringing forth” and there are two forms of bringing forth. The first is directly associated with poiesis, as it is the bringing forth into existence that the craftsperson and the poet (and anyone who “produces” things) practices. The activities, the making of poets and craftspeople, was called “techne” by the Greeks, “know how”.  The products of these activities are brought forth by something else (en alloi—“in another”), that is, the poet makes the poem, the artist makes the tea ceremony cup, etc. The second type of “bringing forth” is physis, the bringing forth that occurs in nature, in which things such as flowers are brought forth in themselves (en heautoi). Both instances, however, fall into the category of poiesis in the sense that something that was not present is made present.

This “bringing forth” out of concealment into “unconcealment” is what the Greeks termed “aletheia” which literally means “revealing” or “unveiling”. It is the Greek word for “truth”. This disclosing or unveiling is of something that was always already present and the four causes all participate in the revealing of this thing that was always already present. We need to keep this original concept of truth in mind when we discuss the other theories of truth: correspondence, coherence and pragmatic.


  • we began with our everyday understanding of technology as instrumentality, as a way of getting things done
  • we moved from what we mean by instrumentality into a discussion of “cause”
  • the examination of “cause”, in turn, lead to a discussion of poiesis as a bringing forth, a revealing of something that was concealed
  • we arrived at the conclusion that this “bringing forth” was related to the Greek word aletheia or “truth” and that all bringing forth, “production”, is related to what the Greeks understood as “truth”.

Technology as “Techne” + “Logos”:

But what has poetry to do with technology? Technology is a kind of poiesis, a bringing forward, a revealing.  In this way it is associated with “truth”.  We need to grasp a different view of “technology” than our current view of it as “instrumentality”. What does the word “technology” mean? We overlook this word and assume that we know its meaning because we are surrounded by technological things like a fish is surrounded by water.

Our word “technology” comes from the Greek technikon, someone who uses techne.  This is where the word techne comes from and means “know how” or “knowing one’s way about or in something”. For the Greeks, a techne was a “maker”, whether of shoes or of poems.  In the sense of “technique”, techne refers to both manufacturing (the techniques of shoemakers and tailors, for example) and to the arts (the techniques of poets and graphic designers, for example). Techne is part of poiesis. “Know how” is one definition of a type of “knowledge”.

In Greek thought from Plato on, the word techne is used in connection with the word episteme, from which we get the word “epistemology”–the branch of philosophy that examines how we know things.  Our course is called “Theory of Knowledge”. It is a course dealing with “epistemology”. The Latins interpreted this type of knowledge as “science”: “Science is the theory of the real”.

Techne is a kind of knowing. We might think of it as “expertise” which we generally understand as more than a set of practical skills. It is “know-how”. What is decisive in techne does not lie at all in making and manipulating nor in the using of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. Our word “technology” thus means “making” (“making” as “producing” or “bringing forth”) + “knowing” (knowing as a kind of expertise or “know how”). It is the kind of knowing that makes the “making” possible.

If we understand technology as deriving from this concept of techne, then we will see that its essence lies not in the instrumental production of goods through the use of tools or manipulation of materials or data, but in “revealing”. The artisan, through his techne, brings together the form (a cup) and matter (the clay) of the tea ceremony cup within the idea of “cupness” to reveal the cup that has been “on its way” to existence. The cup was always already there. Its coming into being or presence was the partial responsibility of the artist but not the sole responsibility.

So far, we have been focusing on the arts and their relation to “technology”; but when we think of technology, our focus is on the sciences, in particular the physical sciences. We think of “technology” as a product of the physical sciences, the computers we use, the medical achievements that we have made.

The example of the tea ceremony cup might seem irrelevant to a discussion in the technological age in which virtually all of our artisans’ work can be performed by a machine. One of the differences, we might assume, is that modern technology is based on modern physics. But the development of the physical sciences has been so dependent upon the technological development of devices for testing, measuring, etc. (the enhancement of our sense perception as a WOK), that science cannot be viewed as a “cause” or “origin” of technology.

The difference lies elsewhere. It lies in modern technology’s orientation to the world. Modern technology’s mode of revealing is not poiesis, according to Martin Heidegger.

The “revealing” that rules in modern technology is a challenging which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.  (Money is really “congealed energy”, for instance. It is stored energy.) This challenging, demanding viewing of nature is grounded in the principle of reason: we challenge, demand reasons for why some thing is the way it is. The principle of reason determines how we understand causality.

The difference between older forms of technology (the windmill, for example, which draws its energy from the wind but does not extract and store that energy) and modern technology which exploits and exhausts–“challenges”–our planet’s resources is an example of the difference of our orientation to the world. Our challenging looks at the environment as “disposables”, how the resources can be of some use to ourselves. Unless they have some relation to ourselves as “usefulness” for our conceived ends, then they are not allowed or recognized as having any independent being in their own right; they are not allowed “to be”. They are not “objects” as these have traditionally been understood. Reflect on both the Styrofoam cup and the tea ceremony cup once again. The Styrofoam cup has no reason for its existence beyond its “usefulness”; and once used, it is disposable and meant to be disposable. The relation of the tea ceremony cup to its users is quite different.

ThreeGorgesDam-China2009Another example illustrates the difference between technology’s “challenging forth” and poetry’s “revealing”. Let us look at China’s Three Gorges, a potent symbol in Chinese national culture, to show how technology transforms our orientation to the world. When we build hydroelectric dams on the rivers, the meaning of the rivers change: they become an energy resource. There is a contrast between “the Three Gorges” viewed as a source of hydroelectric power and “the Three Gorges” as it appears in the work of many Chinese artists and poets, in which the rivers appear as the source of philosophical inspiration and cultural pride. It is interesting to note here that technology also includes the tourism industry, which in its own way transforms the natural world into raw materials, a source of profit. Now, Chinese pride is in their mastery of nature and millions of tourists, both domestic and foreign, flock to see this Chinese mastery of nature at its height.

It might help to recall at this point the Greeks’ description of things being “on their way into arrival”. The tea ceremony cup “arrives” when the artisan’s work brings it “out of concealment”. Before, it was only potentially a cup; in the work of the artisan (techne), that potentiality is realized and the cup is “revealed” or brought into actuality.

Modern technology also reveals. But its revealing is different from that of the older crafts. To explain this difference more fully, we need to introduce the idea of the “resources” or “disposability”.

“Resources” is closely related to the idea of technology as “instrumentality” with which this writing begins. Technology’s instrumental orientation to the world transforms the world into “resources” or “disposables”; it transforms the world into “disposables” so that all the things we encounter, including other human beings, are “disposables”.  We might say that for technology, nothing in the world is “good” in and of itself, but only “good for” something. In the grip of technology, things that are always already present no longer get to “arrive” (see discussion in Reason as a WOK and the short discussion on an understanding of the shadows in Plato’s cave); our striving is to “change the world”, but this changing is to make the things of the world “disposables”. The airplane that stands on the Changi airport runway, for example, has no meaning or value in and of itself; it is merely a means of transportation and its value to humanity is completely tied to its being at humanity’s disposal. The computers we use have no meaning outside of their uses; after a short period of time we “recycle” them with the loss of an incredible amount of wasted energy that has gone into their making. Our networking and relationships are turned into what “use” we can make of the human beings (resources) we are in contact with.

Technology transforms humanity itself into resources; humanity itself becomes “disposable”. We have become “human resources” or “human capital”.  Today, the burning of Sumatran forests to replace them with palm oil trees is perhaps a better example of how our own well-being and health is placed at risk; and for the majority of people, this goes well beyond the profits of the palm oil companies. The chemical sciences have determined the “value” of palm oil, which is used in many, many products that we use as consumers.

Our use of the expression “human resources” aligns human beings with raw materials such as coal or petroleum or palm oil or agricultural products (and this use of human beings as “resource” by other human beings is what is called “cybernetics”.) If one reflects on the consequences of such thinking and viewing, one may understand why there are so many reservations regarding AI among many learned people. AI is the outcome of a particular human way of thinking and viewing the world.

But because humanity is, as it were, in the “driver’s seat” of technological advances, humanity never completely becomes mere raw material. By the same token, nature and nature’s mode of revealing never fall completely under human control. Even though humanity has now acquired the capacity to destroy nature utterly (atomic energy), the natural world reveals itself to human beings on its own terms. Humanity doesn’t directly control the formation of coal deposits or the accumulation of nitrogen in the soil; we can only control the way we orient ourselves, our thinking and our actions, in relation to such resources and to other human beings.

This fundamental relationship between humanity and the world gives rise to a particular human orientation or comportment to the world, an orientation or attitude referred to as Framing which in turn determines our “composing”.

What is framing? The “Hard-Wiring” of Our World-Views

The German word Gestell has a number of meanings: rack, skeleton–the basic sense is of an armature or framework. In the history of philosophy, it finds its origins in Leibniz and Kant, and through them to Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. This term is used to describe how human beings have come to relate to the natural world. It can also be found in the poetry of William Blake where he refers to the “framing” of the “fearful symmetry” of “The Tyger”. (Blake in an earlier draft, originally used “German forged manacles” for “mind forged manacles” in his poem “London”. See “Imagination as a Way of Knowing for a further discussion of Blake).

Let’s return to the Greek word eidos, familiar to us from the example of the tea ceremony cup, and explain how Plato redefined this word. Eidos originally designated the outward, visible appearance of an object; Plato, however, uses the word to mean the abstract, universal essence of that object: the “cupness” of the cup is the eidos, not the individual outward appearance of any individual cup. From Plato’s redefinition comes our word “idea”. The use of Gestell, or “Framing”, follows a similar path: a word meaning something concrete (a bookshelf, for example), is used to designate something abstract when given its philosophical applications.

We often hear people criticized for wanting to “put everything into boxes”; we are exhorted to “think outside of the box”. This expression usually means that a person thinks uncreatively, narrowly, with too high a regard for established categories.

The “frame” in the concept of “Framing” corresponds to these “boxes”, but all of us have a tendency to think in this way. It is our “mindset”.

We noted before that nature reveals itself to us in its own terms, and all that humanity can directly control is its orientation to the natural world. We should think of “nature” here in the broadest sense, as the entire realm of the non-human–but also including such things as our physical bodies, over which we have only limited control. What characterizes the essence of modern technology is the human impulse to put the world “into boxes”, to enclose all of our experiences of the world within categories of understanding–mathematical equations, physical laws, sets of classifications–that we can control. The need to domineer and control is what has determined our “looking” at nature as calculable, orderable and this is grounded in the axiom that is principle of reason.

When the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, for example, states that “the essence  of technology is by no means anything technological”, he means that technology’s driving force is not located in machines themselves, nor even in the various human activities that are associated with modern modes of production. In the example of the computer, the parts that make up the machine as well as the labor of the factory workers all belong to technology, but are not its essence. The “frame of mind” that views the world–its reserves of rare earth metal ores, its chemical structures, its human populations–as raw materials for the production of computers approaches more closely what we mean by the essence of technology. The technological world-view, however, is still more far-reaching. Framing or the viewing of the world as disposables stems, historically, from the human drive for a “precise” and “scientific” knowledge of the world. (See Reason as a WOK and the discussion of the principle of reason).

What is technology’s place within the history of the modern sciences? In at least one sense modern technology comes before the development of modern physics and actually shapes that development. This claim will make sense to us if we remember that the essence of technology is that orientation to the world called “Framing”. Insofar as the human drive for a precise, controllable knowledge of the natural world paves the way for modern physics, we can say that “Framing”, and thus the essence of modern technology, precedes and determines the development of modern science. Technology is not applied modern science; modern science is applied technology.

The essence does not reveal itself till the end. The instruments and devices, the tools of technology, are the revealing of what technology is in its essence in much the same way that the oak tree is the revealing of the essence that is contained in the acorn or the full human being from the fertilized embryo.

Where does this Framing tendency of human thought begin? The philosophical context in which that question can be asked must be considered here.  The task for ourselves in TOK is to question the implicit assumptions in our thinking, assumptions that are in the “key concepts” that we use to understand what knowledge is. To do this, we must undertake the painstaking effort to try to think through still more primally what was primally thought. Greek philosophy and the tracing back of the meanings of words is closely related to the larger project of uncovering the implicit significance of important concepts. What is most “original” or “first” is also that which is most enduring; the most fundamental concepts are those that will continue to shape the concepts that come after. I am here pointing to the principle of reason.

One of clearest statements of what we mean by “Framing” appears in the dilemma of modern physicists, who are discovering that the physical world does not lend itself to measurement and observation as readily as they once thought. Physics is bound to a particular way of looking at the world: that nature reports itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remains orderable as a system of information. This system is then determined by a causality that has changed once again. As Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, has said: “”What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.  Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.”

The model of causality that shapes modern physics is neither the “original” Greek one of “ways of being responsible” nor the traditional Latin one of the four causa, but a model of “numbers crunching” in which things exist and come into existence only insofar as they can be measured.

We often think of technology as the “application” of the discoveries of science. Much of the discipline of “Applied Physics” is devoted to the construction and testing of useful devices. It is not enough to have identified Framing as the essence of modern technology. We need to determine how we, as human beings, stand in relation to technology. The essence of technology precedes the historical emergence of both modern science and modern machine production. In that sense, we might view modern science as the “application” of Framing. But what, exactly, is Framing?

Is humanity’s “Framing” orientation to the world an inevitable outgrowth of the history of human consciousness as is suggested by many of the latest biological and sociological studies? The question about how we are to relate to technology always comes “too late”, since we are already caught up in a Framing view of nature which sees nature as disposable as much as we are caught up in the concrete realities of technological development. We can, however, gain some perspective on our own orientation to the world, and thus achieve a perspective on technology.

How is human history related to the historical development of technology, and how can humanity come into the “free relationship to technology”–which is, remember, the aim of this TOK course for both the teachers and the students and are questions we must consider throughout our studying and questioning.

Geschichte, the German word for “history”, and Geschick, the word for “destiny”, deriving from the verb schicken, “to send”, are related etymologically. The human drive to obtain a quantifiable and controllable knowledge of the world “sends” humanity on the way to an orientation that views the world as a set of raw materials, as “resources”, disposables, culminating in modern technology. From the primal relationship in which the physical world reveals itself to humanity on its own terms, humanity moves or is sent into a Framing relationship with the world. Within this relationship, however, the earlier relationship is maintained: humanity is still experiencing the world as the world reveals itself. Oedipus is “sent” on the road to his destiny, ironically, once he visits the oracle of Delphi and learns that his destiny is to marry his mother and murder his father. Oedipus attempts to escape this fate by fleeing Corinth and the parents that have adopted him only to meet his fate, his real parents, and realize his fate in his journey. Oedipus completes his fate because of his “blindness” to the things that are and through the rashness of his character. We, too, are in Oedipus’ position and we, too, must open our ears and eyes in order to re-orientate ourselves to our being-in-the-world.

Because Framing does not utterly change humanity’s connection to the world, there is room, even within Framing, for a different–we might say “renewed”–orientation to the world, according to Heidegger. It is not exactly right to speak of Framing as an inevitable development of humanity’s interaction with the world—we must caution against a fatalistic view of technology’s incursion into our lives. We can neither throw up our hands in the face of the problems brought on by technology, nor can we “rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil” (Heidegger).

Once we realize that our own orientation to the world is the essence of technology, once we “open ourselves” to this essence, we find an opportunity to establish a free relationship to technology. We have a choice, according to Heidegger:

Humanity can continue on its path of Framing, of “pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering”, seeing the world as disposables, and structure our lives according to the rules and values of this orientation.  This is the world view that ultimately devolves and arrives in nihilism, meaninglessness.

The continuation of this viewing would cancel out the other possibility:

Humanity can come to realize that it, too, is “on its way” to an arrival, and that only by re-orienting itself to the way in which nature reveals itself can humanity establish a relationship with the world that is not ultimately self-destructive. Our self-destruction does not come about through atomic weapons or climate change or any of the other problems or crises that our technological world-view has brought about. Our self-destruction is the ultimate loss of the essence of our own humanity. We have intimations of this loss of our essence when we view our world situation today.

The danger associated with technology is not so much the direct effects of mechanization. The danger is the threat to humanity’s “spiritual” life. This danger has four main elements:

  1. In continuing on the path of Framing, humanity will eventually reach a point at which the human, too, becomes only so much “resources” or disposables.
  2. Humanity’s over inflated sense of its power over the natural world will result in humanity’s coming to believe that humanity has control over all existence.
  3. This excessive pride leads ultimately to the “delusion” that humanity encounters itself and only itself everywhere it looks–a kind of narcissism at the species level and the extreme end of “humanism”.
  4. Finally, such an orientation to the world will blind humanity to the ways in which the world reveals itself. In spite of (in fact, because of) the entire set of scientific apparatuses and theories which are meant to guarantee our precise knowledge of our world, we will miss the truth of what the world is (See Natural Science as an Area of Knowledge).

In Heidegger’s words: “The threat to humanity does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted humanity in its essence.” The rule of Framing threatens humanity with the possibility that it could be denied to us to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

Another Orientation to the World: The Return to Plato’s Cave

Within the “supreme danger” of humanity’s Framing orientation to the world lies the potential of a rescue from that very danger.

To help us to understand this paradox, we turn our attention to the meaning of “essence”. The traditional philosophical sense of “essence” means “what” [in Latin, quid] something is. (See the unit “Knowers and the Things Known”). It names a genus, a class of things that are all the same kind of thing. All trees, for example, have “treeness” in common; “treeness” is their essence. From their inquiries into essence, the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, developed the concept of eidos, which we have already encountered in the example of the tea ceremony cup.

This traditional understanding of essence, however, does not apply to modern technology. For Plato and Aristotle, the essence is what “remains permanently”, what outlasts any particular manifestation of a thing. The particular oak that has grown out of the acorn has its essence in being both an oak (and not an elm) and in being a tree (treeness) already, permanently held in the acorn. In trying to “get behind” the assumptions and established formulations that shape traditional philosophical thinking, the model of essence as a “genus” does not adequately represent the relationship between the essence of a thing and the thing as it appears before us. This raises questions for all of our AOKs and WOKs.

If Framing, as the essence of technology, cannot be thought of as a category to which all technological things belong, how are we supposed to think of it? We can return to Plato’s Cave at this point. For Plato, the eidos and “idea” are in Being and allow beings (things) “to endure permanently”. The Sun’s light “grants” the appearance of beings to humanity (remember that the Sun is a metaphor of the Good in the Cave analogy and this light is a metaphor for all of our ways of knowing). There is a connection of the concept of “enduring”–a quality of essence in the traditional model of essence–and “granting.” This “granting” is the sense of “otherness” that is “given” to humanity and not “created” by humanity.

The idea of “giving” or “granting” is crucial, and the phrase “to be” is, in German, es gibt–literally, “it gives”. If we return for a moment to the example of the tea ceremony cup, the ceremonial cup is used in a “transformative practice”, in particular that of “wabi-sabi”. “Wabi” represents the inner, or spiritual, experiences of human lives. Its original meaning indicated quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste “characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry emphasizing simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and celebrating the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials.” “Sabi”, on the other hand, represents the outer or material side of life. Originally, it meant “worn,” “weathered,” or “decayed”. Particularly among the nobility, understanding emptiness was considered the most effective means to spiritual awakening, while embracing imperfection was honored as a healthy reminder to cherish our unpolished selves, here and now, just as we are – the first step to “satori” or enlightenment (Wikipedia). The tea ceremony and its cup is the opposite of the technological fast-food industry and its ubiquitous Styrofoam cups, plastics and other petro-chemically composed and produced materials. The Japanese tea ceremony experiences life as a ‘gift’ while the ‘quick’ breakfast is efficient, useful and non-reflective and emphasizes that there are other more important things to be done.

The world “gives” itself to us insofar as it reveals and opens itself to us. Our response to this “gift” as “Framing” is at once a grave danger (our instrumental, exploitative, disposable, blind orientation to the world sets us on a self-destructive course) and an opportunity to see ourselves as a part of the coming-into-being, the revealing, and the “granting” of the world, what has been called the “otherness” of the world in other writings here. Life gives us a choice: to view it as a “problem to be solved” or as a gift to be cherished.

Furthermore, since humanity is as we have said “in the driver’s seat” of technology, we must realize that our capacity to manipulate nature entails a solemn responsibility to “watch over” nature. Again, we can easily see the argument in terms of today’s environmental movement, but we need to remember that it is not simply speaking of nature in the sense usually assumed by environmentalists. Everything that exists must be cared for–humanity’s responsibility is to care for Being itself. In this activity, memory as a WOK is of crucial importance. It would also be a simplification of the argument to associate it too directly with the anti-nuclear movement, but the specter of the total devastation of the planet does bring home the gravity of our/the concerns with our technological world-view. In the question concerning technology as a way of knowing everything is at stake.


Let us sum up the major points:

We tend to think of technology as an instrument, a means of getting things done as shown in the Styrofoam cup and the fast-food breakfast. This definition, however, misses the actual essence of technology, and tends to make us think that by making the technology better–better able to “get things done”–we will master technology and solve the problems that technology has itself created (the environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists remain within the technological way of revealing).

This instrumental way of thinking stems from our assumptions about causality. If we come to understand modes of causality as ways of being responsible for the arrival of things into existence, we can begin to understand that the essence of technology has to do with the way we are oriented to the coming-into-existence, or the “revealing” of the world.

Humanity’s orientation to the world takes the form of a Framing which views the world only as “resource”, a source of raw materials, disposables, as “good for something”. In this Framing, however, lies the potential for another orientation.

Framing is the essence of technology. Framing is ambiguous, in that contains two possibilities:

It is a danger that sets man on a destructive and self-destructive course. “On the one hand, Framing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the coming-to-pass of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth”. (Heidegger)

At the same time, it is a “saving power” and an opportunity: humanity’s Framing orientation to the world makes clear the responsibility of human beings to the world. If we reflect upon the Framing as the essence of technology, we will find not only that we are a part of the world, but that the world “needs” us to care for it, that humanity “is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth” (Heidegger).

Let us try to clarify the relationship between these two opposing orientations contained within Framing.

The danger of technology’s essence and the saving power inherent in it are joined in the way stars are joined in a constellation: part of a whole, but separate entities. We might also use the TOK diagram to illustrate the point here: the individual is one part of a whole that is encompassed by Life (Being). Enclosed as we are within our Framing orientation to the world, what can we do to save ourselves from the consequences of Framing? How can we nurture an alternative way of looking at things that will help us to change the ways of thinking that drive technology and thus to evade some of the horrific dangers that inhere in technology?

Against an orientation that investigates all aspects of the world and assumes that the world can be grasped and controlled through measurement and categorization (classification), an alternative may be found in art (although the saving power of art was denied by Socrates). In the history of the West before the onset of Framing, in ancient Greece, where the concept of techne–which, as we have seen, is the source of our word “technology”–included both instrumentality and the fine arts, that is, poiesis we may find the source of a possible alternative. In Greece art was not a separate function within society, but a unifying force that brought together religious life, political life, and social life. The art of ancient Greek culture expressed humanity’s sense of connectedness with all Being. Art was a kind of “piety”; it was the outgrowth of humanity’s care–in the sense of “stewardship”–of all existence. It was no one less than Socrates who said, however, that art cannot be the “saving” of humanity: only reason can do this. This is something that must be pondered for what is the “reason” that Socrates is talking about here and is it how we have come to understand reason? Is it the principle of reason and causality as algorithm?

In our own time, the paradox of how “Framing” can hold within it a saving power can be resolved by viewing the artistic or poetic orientation to the world as the alternative dimension of “Framing”. The poet looks at the world in order to understand it, certainly, but this reflection does not seek to make the world into a “standing-reserve”, a resource, or a disposable; the seeing does not seek to change the world. The poet takes the world “as it is”, as it reveals itself—which is the world’s “true” form (remember that the Greek word for truth, aletheia, literally means “revealing” or “unveiling”).

“Truth” is a “revealing,” the process of something “giving” or “showing” itself. Art is the realm in which this “granting” of the world is upheld. Art’s relationship with the world is different from technology’s in that art is less concerned with measuring, classifying, and exploiting the resources of the world than it is with “taking part” in the process of coming-to-being and revealing that characterize our existence and our essence as human beings.

In the second Bremen lecture of 1949, Heidegger said the following extremely controversial statement: “Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving of countries, the same as the production of hydrogen bombs.” Such a statement shocks our liberal humanist sensibilities and “values” when the deaths of millions of human beings are said to be essentially the same as our slaughtering of animals to provide food in the most efficient way, but here Heidegger is being consistent in his thought regarding the uncanny essence of technology. Within the technological world view, that there are human beings to whom no justice is due, to whom nothing is due but extermination is the stuff of today’s headlines. What is the alternative to this?

We are not suggesting that we all go out and become artists, but rather that we incorporate more of the artist’s and poet’s vision into our own view of the world. In “Imagination as a Way of Knowing” I have tried to illustrate this through the example of William Blake. In incorporating the artist’s vision into how we view the world, we can guard against the dangers of Framing, and enter into a “free”–constantly critical, constantly questioning, constantly listening and hearing–relationship with the technology that in its persistence is constantly making new incursions into our lives. No matter how we view and live within the technological, the issues are of the most importance for ourselves as human beings and our future on this planet.


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.

Nietzsche/Darwin Part X: Nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche

Since Nietzsche, only in the modern era have ‘spirit” and “culture” been deliberately experienced as fundamental ways in which human beings comport themselves to both themselves and the world, and the word “values” used to describe such comportment. Indeed, such comportment is evaluated in all the areas of knowledge that are studied in the IB Diploma Program. This is part of the gradual movement from empiricism or positivism to historicism, a movement which Nietzsche saw as inevitable.

That we use the words ‘spirit’ and ‘culture’ to describe the Middle Ages or Greek civilization prevents us from understanding these eras since there is no “spirit” or “culture” present in them. It is through the language and thinking of Nietzsche that we have determined how we “know” and “understand” these historical eras and what we call our “personal” and “shared” knowledge in our own era. Nietzsche’s thinking and language permeates the social/human sciences and now has come to permeate the “hard” sciences through the discoveries of modern physics, particularly relativity and indeterminacy, and these hard sciences’ impact on chemistry and biology. As a teacher I have always been astonished at how the young were speaking the language of Nietzsche when they had absolutely no familiarity with him.

Nietzsche considers “nihilism” as that condition where the ultimate values devaluate themselves. The determination of values is grounded in a determination of whether and how something is—or whether that is is “nothing”—no-thing. There is a connection here to beings in their Being; they are not concepts of value since they are “no-thing”. Since “things” themselves have no values in and of themselves it is human beings who give the value to the things.

The “nothing” of nihilism is rooted in a judgement, assertion; it has its origins in “logic”. Nietzsche’s thinking illustrates that the essence of “nothing” cannot be understood but also that it will no longer be understood. For Nietzsche, the modern era is where human beings became the centre and measure of all things. This is not to be understood as an individual ego or subjectum but of human beings as the ground and aim of all Being. (See for example Pope Francis’ acceptance of “evolution” as a “fact”, although his interpretation is somewhat different than that understood by the scientists: the scientist understands evolution as a product of chance or contingency, the output of the chaos of existence and that it has no goal or aim in and of itself; Pope Francis must see evolution as part of the order of the world, an example of God’s will which, at some point in history,  gives the logos to human being, and this comes dangerously close to the blasphemy of thinking that one can make the will of God “scrutable”).

How does nihilism come to be? When Nietzsche writes that “God is dead”, he is not being trite in the manner of the 1960s hippie activist Abbie Hoffman who said: “God is dead and we did it for the kids”. Hoffman’s banality has been echoed by many since. With the death of God comes the devaluation of the highest value, the nullity of meaning and purpose for and in anything. This result is due to the fact that meaning was sought in all events and things and was not found. “Meaning” and “value” are synonymous in Nietzsche: what has meaning has value, and what has value has meaning.

“Meaning” also indicates “purpose”. We see purpose as the “why” of every action, comportment, and event. Nietzsche illustrates what meaning and purpose could have been: “the ethical world order”; “the growth of love and harmony in social intercourse”; pacifism, eternal peace, our globalization and our “international mindedness”; “the gradual approximation to a state of universal happiness”; the greatest good for the greatest number; “or even the departure toward a state of universal nothingness”. Any goal constitutes some meaning. Why? Because it has a purpose, because it is itself a purpose. Ultimately, it is the necessity of the will to will.

What does our reliance on mathematical physics and the everydayness of our comportment to things have to do with what Nietzsche understands as nihilism? Nietzsche can say it much better than I. Let’s have a look at a long passage from his Will To Power (#12) which presages the arrival of our modern era and gives us reasons why the corporation and social networks as institutions have come to dominate our social lives and our politics. Many more extensions to all the areas of knowledge and to all the areas of our current existence can be made by extrapolating on what is said here:

12 (Nov, 1887-March 1888) Decline of Cosmological Values


Nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a “meaning” in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged. Nihilism, then, is the recognition of the long waste of strength, the agony of the “in vain,” insecurity, the lack of any opportunity to recover and to regain composure—being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long.— This meaning could have been: the “fulfillment” of some highest ethical canon in all events, the moral world order; or the growth of love and harmony in the intercourse of beings; or the gradual approximation of a state of universal happiness; or even the development toward  a state of universal annihilation—any goal at least constitutes some meaning. What all these notions have in common is that something is to be achieved through the process—and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing.— Thus, disappointment regarding an alleged aim of becoming as a cause of nihilism: whether regarding a specific aim or, universalized, the realization that all previous hypotheses about aims that concern the whole “evolution” are inadequate (man no longer the collaborator, let alone the center, of becoming).

Nihilism as a psychological state is reached, secondly, when one has posited a totality, a systematization, indeed any organization in all events, and underneath all events, and a soul that longs to admire and revere has wallowed in the idea of some supreme form of domination and administration (—if the soul be that of a logician, complete consistency and real dialectic are quite sufficient to reconcile it to everything). Some sort of unity, some form of “monism”: this faith suffices to give man a deep feeling of standing in the context of, and being dependent on, some whole that is infinitely superior to him, and he sees himself as a mode of the deity.— “The well-being of the universal demands the devotion of the individual”—but behold, there is no such universal!

At bottom, man has lost the faith in his own value when no infinitely valuable whole works through him; i.e., he conceived such a whole in order to be able to believe in his own value.

Nihilism as psychological state has yet a third and last form. Given these two insights, that becoming has no goal and that underneath all becoming there is no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value, an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception and to invent a world beyond it, a true world. But as soon as man finds out how that world is fabricated solely from psychological needs, and how he has absolutely no right to it, the last form of nihilism comes into being: it includes disbelief in any metaphysical world and forbids itself any belief in a true world. Having reached this standpoint, one grants the reality of becoming as the only reality, forbids oneself every kind of clandestine access to afterworlds and false divinities—but cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.

What has happened, at bottom? The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept of “aim,” the concept of “unity,” or the concept of “truth.” Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking: the character of existence is not “true,” is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world. Briefly: the categories “aim,” “unity,” “being” which we used to project some value into the world—we pull out again; so the world looks valueless.


Suppose we realize how the world may no longer be interpreted in terms of these three categories, and that the world begins to become valueless for us after this insight: then we have to ask about the sources of our faith in these three categories. Let us try if it is not possible to give up our faith in them. Once we have devaluated these three categories, the demonstration that they cannot be applied to the universe is no longer any reason for devaluating the universe.

Conclusion: The faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.

Final conclusion: All the values by means of which we have tried so far to render the world estimable for ourselves and which then proved inapplicable and therefore devaluated the world—all these values are, psychologically considered, the results of certain perspectives of utility, designed to maintain and increase human constructs of domination—and they have been falsely projected into the essence of things. What we find here is still the hyperbolic naiveté of man: positing himself as the meaning and measure of the value of things.

Nietzsche sums up nihilism as of three types: the failure of a search for meaning and purpose; the failure of positing a “unity” in which human beings were seen as the “centre” of that unity (the humanism that arose from traditional Christianity once God was dispensed with) and the “ascent” to a “true” world beyond becoming (Being) i.e. the cosmological, psychological and theological worlds are worlds in which “nothing” is ever achieved.

Nietzsche states in Section B of note #12 above that the highest values are “categories of reason”. This expression means reason, rational thinking, the judgement of understanding, “logic”—all things the categories of reason stand related to and which determine what the things are and how they are. It finds its ultimate statement in Leibniz’s nihil est sine ratione—“nothing is without reason”; “nothing is without a reason (cause)”. Leibniz calls this “the principle of reason”. In our reading of Leibniz’s statement, if we put the emphasis on the words “nothing” and “is” we can begin to hear what Nietzsche intends in his statements. We can rearrange the statement to make it clearer: “Without reason, nothing is”, “Without a reason nothing is”. As Nietzsche states quite explicitly in the “Decline in Cosmological Values”, “Faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism—we have measured the value of the world according to categories which relate to a purely fictitious world.”

Here, Nietzsche quite explicitly defines “faith” as a way of knowing; not as a relation to a “religious knowledge system” only, but to all manner of “systemic thinking”, to all metaphysical thinking which is based upon “results” brought about through reckoning and calculation and based upon “the principle of reason”. But is there not a contradiction here? Have we not already determined that for Nietzsche “technology is the highest form of will to power” and have we not already stated that the thinking involved in symbolic mathematical physics is one predicate of this technology and that it is based upon the principle of reason? The contradiction is resolved in Nietzsche’s statement regarding all human efforts using the principle of reason: “To stamp Becoming with the character of Being—that is the supreme will to power” (WP #617). Such “stamping” of becoming requires what Nietzsche called his most important concept, the eternal recurrence of the same, for its completion. That technology (enframing, framing) which brings to presence, fixates in terms of place, and makes permanent is the stamp (paradigm) which characterizes the nature of Becoming with the character of Being. But for Nietzsche, this stamping is an error. The delimitation of becoming, its defining and the setting of its limits through technology, is an error in which art is necessary lest we perish from the truth of this error. Art is one aspect of the logos of the techne + logos (the “knowing” and the “making”), the supreme form of will to power. This is what Nietzsche called “active nihilism”. Active nihilism sets out to define truth in its essence on the basis of that which lends all things their determinability and definition and this is what technology is.

Knowledge of the origins and of the necessity of values brings with it an insight into the essence of prior values and valuation. “Valuation” and “valuative thought” come not as “instinctive behaviour” observing itself i.e. not as algorithmic thinking and calculation, a “problem solving” that becomes “conscious” but rather that “consciousness” itself becomes “calculation” as instinct proper. The essence of values has its grounds in “constructs of domination”, the domination that solves “problems”. What Nietzsche sees as “untrue” is the fact that these values (primarily through the thinking of Kant and in the interpretations of that thinking) have been placed in a realm of “existing in itself” within which and from which they are to acquire absolute validity for themselves when they are really only a certain kind of will to power. Axiomatic thinking comes to dominate. What does this mean?

Nietzsche writes at the same time in his life (WP #1027): “Man is monster (beast) and overman; the higher man is inhuman and superhuman: these belong together. With every increase of greatness and height in man, there is also an increase in depth and terribleness: one ought not to desire the one without the other—or rather: the more radically one desires the one, the more radically one achieves precisely the other.”

Nietzsche’s concept of morality is not simply the distinctions between “good” and “evil” as these have been traditionally defined. Nietzsche’s conception of metaphysics is a “moral” conception where morality means “a system of evaluations”. Every interpretation of the world, including the scientific, is a positing of values and thus a forming and shaping of the world according to the image of human beings; it is a “moral” evaluation i.e. a system of evaluations. Man is, indeed, “the measure of all things”, but not as Protagoras understood this. There is no distinction between “facts” and “values” as is the faith and belief of the logical positivists. All evaluations are moral evaluations, thus values. Man in his freedom is bound by and bound to his own positings, what he conceives “truth” to be. This is what “the death of God” means: “first principles” (and “morality” is to be understood as based on “first principles”) do not require proof; they are transparent in themselves; they are “obvious”. This is what the word “axiom” means. “Survival of the fittest” is obvious; it is an axiom. It is a value estimation of being. This is what the word “axiom” means. Symbolic algebraic thinking evolves towards “axiomatic thinking”.  The theory of evolution is taught not as theory but as reality.

Plato began metaphysical thinking in the West with his understanding of beings as “Idea”. The ideas are the “one” in the many which at first appears in our experience of the many. We see many varieties of trees as we walk along a path and in them we see the “one” of “treeness” and so this “one” is. The treeness of the tree is the permanent and true of the tree as opposed to its fluctuating appearance in becoming in the many trees we see about us. The Idea is the essence of the specific tree, what it is of a tree that makes it a tree and not a rock.

In Nietzsche’s metaphysics of will to power, the ideas must be considered as “values”, and supreme values are the highest values. For Plato, the highest Idea is the idea of the Good. “Good” is what makes things “good for something”, and it is this “usefulness” which makes the thing possible; but this “utility” is not human-centred. From this “usefulness” is derived the concept of our “indebtedness” to the thing in its relation to us. If we think for a moment, all our issues with our environment such as climate change or the massive pollution of our rivers and oceans are the result of this lack of thinking and feeling of any “indebtedness” to nature for the things that have been given to us, the things that are not of our own making for we have considered them as “no-thing”.

If we think of our perceptions as composed of discrete pixels or data, a form is necessary to make them perceivable to us i.e. to “bring them to light”, bring them to presence for us, and make them be beings that are understandable to us. The data must be put into a structure that can be recognized so that it can “in-form” us through its “form” (in + form + ation, that which is responsible for the form so that it “informs”). Kant would say that it is the “I think” of the ego that renders the interpretation and thus gives the perceptions Being. Nietzsche interprets this subjectivity on the basis of will to power; it is will to power that provides the form that informs. What gets lost is the sense of otherness and our “indebtedness” or “owing” to the otherness that is not ourselves. The thing becomes a “dis-posable”. No-thing has been given to us that is not of our own making. Because we make it, we know it and if we do not know it, it has no being; it is no-thing.

Nihilism always means that there is no-thing/nothing to the thing, the being as such. From this we can see why Nietzsche would say that the Western thinking that finds its flowering in the technological viewing as such is nihilistic and floats upon a sea of nihilism. The “Wherefore? Whither? and What then?” receive no answer and become forgotten, not asked.

Plato’s concept of the Good does not contain “values” thinking. Plato’s “Ideas” are not values, for the Being of beings is not projected as will to power. On the basis of his own fundamental metaphysical position, Nietzsche regards the Platonic interpretation of beings as “Ideas” and that which is beyond the senses as “values”. Under Nietzsche’s interpretation, all philosophy since Plato becomes “metaphysics as values”, but again it must be emphasized that this is Nietzsche’s decision based upon a view of Nature (physis), a view which is totally alien to the Greeks. The perceptible, what is immediately present for us is measured against “desirability”, that which is “needful” and conceived as the “ideal”. We do not measure Nature; Nature measures us.

Nietzsche, however, conceives these “desirable” things as the “uppermost values” or “morality understood as the doctrine of the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon ‘life’ comes to be—“ (Beyond Good and Evil #19) Nietzsche’s “de-struction” of this hierarchy and of the history of metaphysical philosophy is not directed toward an understanding of the past that is historiological in nature, but rather, toward that time which is to come. Because beings as a whole are conceived in the realm of the supra-sensuous which is conceived as ‘true being’, God, the moral law, the authority of reason, “progress”, the happiness of the greatest number become the ideals which have been established. These “ideals” become the preserve of those human beings that Nietzsche referred to as “the last men”, that is, the last men before the arrival of the “overman”; but the ideals of the last men are founded upon nihilism. The “overman” is the highest condition of human being as such for he recognizes beings as will to power and judges “their value for life” as their highest being.

The “devaluation of the highest values hitherto” is what is meant by Nietzsche’s most famous expression “God is dead”. Not only is the Christian God dead but all “higher principles” be they the “authority of conscience”, the “domination of reason”, the God of “historical progress”, “the universal, homogeneous state” are also dead. They come to lose their power to shape history. For Nietzsche, the positing of the uppermost values, their falsification, devaluation, de-position, the appearance of the world as temporarily valueless, the need to replace prior values with new ones, the new positing as revaluation, and the preliminary stages of this revaluation are the “logic” inherent in nihilism itself. For Nietzsche, the cause of nihilism is “morality” where ideals of truth, beauty and goodness are valued “in themselves”. When these values show themselves to be unattainable, life appears to be unsuitable and unable to realize these values. “Pessimism” is a preliminary form of nihilism (WP #9).

One can find among the first examples of this “devaluation” the writings of Machiavelli where political philosophy is designed to deal with human beings “as they really are” and not with human beings as “they should be”. The ideal is removed; the standard is lowered, the hierarchy of nature is removed, and a leveling takes place. Machiavelli could be said to be the step-grandfather of what we call today the human or social sciences. That Machiavelli was an “evil man” goes without saying…he himself claims so.

Nietzsche describes the arrival of nihilism in various stages due to the pessimism brought about by the inability to achieve the “ideals” which have been posited for the whole of beings. What he calls “imperfect nihilism” denies the highest values that have been held historically but simply posits new ideals in the old places. So, for example, “communism” comes to replace the early forms of Christianity. These halfway measures postpone the decisive overthrow of the uppermost values. Nietzsche called Kant “the great delayer”, and much of modern thinking uses Kant to retain some kind of faith in a “transcendental” “supra-sensuous” realm.

The thinking that Nietzsche affirms is that thinking which shifts the place where new valuations will become possible. “Values” are conceived as conditions of will to power and beings as a whole are thought of in terms of values. Our language of “empowerment” and “quality of life” are examples of the values-thinking permeating our modern discourse. The value of the totality of beings is captured in Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence of the same” i.e. the value of the whole cannot be determined but evolves perpetually.

Nietzsche conceives all “meaning” as “purpose” and “end”, and purpose and end are values. Therefore, he can say that “absolute valuelessness”, that is meaninglessness, “aimless in itself”,  is “a fundamental tenet of faith for the nihilist”. Today, science attempts to ignore its own crisis in its understanding of its meaning and purpose and it is indicative that science is will to power for its own sake, the simple will to will. As science, as knowledge, it is “useless” and “valueless”.

Nietzsche/Darwin: Part IX-B: Education, Ethics/Actions: Contemplative vs. Calculative Thinking

If the intelligence is to be illuminated by love, how has this love and its attention, receptivity and consent to otherness been put aside in our relations to other human beings and to the things of this world through our understanding of mathematics, its teaching to our young people, and its uses even as we are not consciously aware of the effects of this paradigm of knowledge on our actions in our day-to-day lives?

Before going on to outline what nihilism is in detail, we will be discussing how our understanding of mathematics has come to determine the principles for our actions i.e. how mathematics as algebraic calculation, the logos/logic, our account of things, determines our ethics or our practical actions. In doing so, we will look at some of the differences between what is called calculative thinking and what is called contemplative thinking or what has been referred to as “attention” in the other writings. If the intelligence is to be illuminated by love, how has this love and its attention, receptivity and consent to otherness been put aside in our relations to other human beings and to the things of this world through our understanding of mathematics, its teaching to our young people, and its uses even as we are not consciously aware of the effects of this paradigm of knowledge on our actions in our day-to-day lives?

In this writing, an examination of a passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear will help us to understand how the Greeks understood the relation of mathematics to human actions and how we have come to misinterpret the famous passage of the Sophist Protagoras who said that “Man is the measure of all things”. We will attempt to make a distinction between Cartesian subjectivity and Protagoras’ statement and illustrate how our understanding of the world and our being in it shapes our understanding of the “shared knowledge” that we have inherited from the past using the Protagoras example as a case of mininterpretation. It should become clear that this writing deals with some of the most important matters for thinking although it provides only hints at possible directions that could lead to further thought.

What we call mathematics is a theoretical viewing of the world which establishes the surety and certainty of the world through calculation. What the Greeks meant by mathematics is “what can be learned and what can be taught”. Our mathematics is crucial in determining our understanding of what we think can be learned and can be taught. The abstractions that we make with our own thinking in mathematics are not those that a Greek would have made. 

Mathematics deals with all beings. Calculative thinking determines that all the things of the world are disposables and are to be used by human beings in their various dispositions and comportments to the things that are. This comportment and disposition is a commandeering challenging of the world and the beings in it, and it is what we have come to call “knowledge”. This under-standing, or ground (subjectum), is that upon which all of our actions are based. This surety or certainty that beings are as we say they are through calculation arises through the viewing and use of algebraic calculation in the modern world. It was achieved in the thinking of the French philosopher Rene Descartes where human beings were conceived as subjectum and the world about them was conceived as objectum. The incredible results of what has been achieved through this calculative thinking have come to astonish us and to determine what knowledge is in our day and what is best to be known and how it is to be known.

Ethics are based on what Aristotle called phronesis: our careful deliberation over what best actions will ultimately bring about the best end result. We sometimes call this “common sense” because it is reason and judgement based on experience. We call this end result of our deliberations our “happiness” or what Aristotle called our eudaimonia, our “good spirits”. In today’s sciences, some have come to call the results of these deliberations algorithms and to consider them as what underlies all the things that are; this is really a re-statement of the principle of reason but it is an unthought of statement. Understanding the algorithm is what will bring about our happiness which in our case is mere “survival”; all higher level mammals have this awareness of algorithms. This understanding is brought about through some species of calculative thought. The algorithm and its understanding itself is a priori. The algorithm as a principle of addressing our practical need of survival is just one aspect of Nietzsche’s “will to power”. Nietzsche calls this algorithmic thinking “true, but deadly”.

We have confused our means of representing nature with nature itself and this confusion erodes our understanding of what it means to be human. We have traded in our “knowledge” of the search for the order of the world into a symbolic manipulation that provides predictive success allowing us to domineer and control nature. Our physics must report its findings in symbolic mathematics; that is its logos.

In the Cartesian view of things, human being as a “self” is defined by the world being referred back to man’s representing through the use of mathematical reason. This “how” of our being-in-the-world is as the distinctive ground underlying every representing of beings in their being. Through algebraic calculation, this representing is a “symbolic” representation. For Aristotle and the Latins who followed him, all beings are subjectum including rocks, animals, plants, but in Cartesian thinking man becomes the unique subjectum and rocks, animals, plants and other human beings  become objectum. Subject “representation” gives being to objects, what the things are to the “representing” subject. “Representedness” is secured through algebraic reckoning/calculation. This is securing is called ‘the correspondence theory of truth”.

Our mathematical calculations give surety, certitude. “Truth” is correspondence, the agreement of our knowledge with the things, how the being with which knowledge is supposed to agree is understood (homoiosis), and how knowledge is to be “pro-duced” when it is “robust”. Knowledge and the “how” of the being must stand in agreement; the being must give its reasons for being the way it is. Knowing is “perception” and “cogitare”, what Descartes called thinking. What is the true is that which is secured, the certain, the being of which the subject can be certain in his representations (here the distinction between what we have come to call the “subjective” and the “objective” comes to the fore). “Method” is required as an advance procedure necessary for securing the truth as certitude. “Method” is affixed to the essence of subjectivity; what we have done to nature, we first had to do to our own bodies. “Method” is no longer simply a sequence arranged into various stages of observation, proof, exposition and summation i.e. the “scientific method”. “Method” is more; it is the name for the securing, conquering procedure against beings in order to grasp them as objects for a subject. The sequence of the titles for Descartes writings indicates this. It is man that determines the beingness for every being. Beingness means representedness through and for the subject. Truth is the certitude of the self-representing and securing representation. If you look at the structure of the TOK program, you can see a concrete illustration of this “representedness” and its method turned into approaches to obtaining and pro-ducing “knowledge”.

This representedness is what we mean when we say “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Any survey of any class of young people will give unanimous agreement to this statement; all young people believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But what is this “be-holding” of the “be-holder”? “Beholding” is the subject’s representing and grasping of what is given  and how this representing gives being to the giveness of the things. The subject is the “beholder”. He “holds” the things in their “be”-ing; he brings them to presence and “represents” them and gives them permanence. To “behold” is to look at something face-to-face brought to presence.  It is “representedness” itself. Beings are given being by this representedness. How this giving of being to things occurs is what we mean by “beholding”: the self-representing of the things that are that gives being to them. That there is a beauty in and of itself outside the subjectivity of the subject is not allowed. Since beauty cannot be understood through calculation and brought to surety and certainty, then it lacks its own being. Its “being”, its “reality” is “subjective” i.e. constructed by the be-holder. There is no room for “beauty” in the world of mathematical physics for there is nothing to love since the beautiful is what we love.

For Descartes, man is the measure of all things for he defines what is and what is not a being. The standard of measure places everything that can pass as a being under the reckoning of representation through the logical steps present in mathematical calculations. Descartes was well aware that he was turning Aristotle upside down and in doing so shifting the position of the being of human beings within the world. It is with Descartes and his centering of the human being as subjectum that what we call humanism truly finds its grounding. Following Descartes would come Newton who would posit that beings are “uniform mass” in “uniform space” in “uniform units of motion”. For Newton to do so would require algebra and the invention of calculus, the predominant method or technique of the most important applied mathematical thinking today, although Leibniz’ finite calculus is more in use than Newton’s and is, really, what is taught in IB mathematics. First comes the philosopher, then follows the scientist as Newton follows Descartes, Darwin follows Rousseau, and Einstein and Heisenberg follow Nietzsche. This is not to say that the great scientists were not themselves also philosophers. Any look at their writings shows that they were. (See, for example, Einstein’s reflections on time and space prior to the paper on special relativity “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” In The Theory of Relativity, trans. W. Perrett and G. B. Jeffery, 37–65. New York: Dover and Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy).

protagorasProtagoras’ view of “man as the measure” comes from an entirely different view of things than that of Descartes because Protagoras has an entirely different view of “truth” than that given in Descartes. For Protagoras, “truth” is unconcealment; for Descartes, truth is correspondence or agreement. For Protagoras, man is not a subject that gives being to other beings. Man perceives what is present within the radius of his perception and takes his “measure” of it. The things about which man concerns himself are what the Greeks called chromata/chremata. These things are those that are are maintained in a realm of accessibility because that realm is one of unconcealment. They are the things of “experience”. The perception of what is present is grounded in the thing’s lingering in the realm of unconcealment as the given. By lingering in the realm of the unconcealed man, too, belongs to the fixed radius of the things present to him. Both are necessary to the other. What is not present in this realm of the unconcealed is the barrier, the web of necessity, the circumference or horizon of the experience of the individual man, a barrier which we try to breach through “fantasy” or the “imagination”.

It is through this restriction of the barrier of the circumference, the web of necessity, that we as individual human beings are an ego, “I”. It is our “personal/shared” knowledge through our experience of which we are the “measure”, metron. For things to be unconcealed requires light which allows the self-disclosure of the thing to be known. This is the opposite of the case with Cartesian subjectivity where the subject renders the thing its being as object. This accounts for the naming of the age following the Renaissance as the Age of Enlightenment; it is human beings who provide the light and this light is the light of reason so understood. Referring to this period of history as the Age of Enlightenment would not be the first time in history that our naming of things was not without its irony nor, undoubtedly, will it be the last. For Protagoras and the Greeks in general, it is through our physical actions/encounters with the world, what we understand as “work”, that we come to understand, experience and “measure” that realm that is unconcealed for us. We moderns understand and measure the world quite differently.

Aristotle in his Metaphysics outlined Pythagorean philosophy as (a) an identification of numbers with the sensible objects; (b) an identification of the principles of numbers with the principles of things that are; and (c) an imitation by objects of the numbers. From this we can see why Aristotle says Plato was a “pure Pythagorean” and why the question of whether mathematics was “discovered” or “invented” can be answered by saying “both”; mathematics as “number” was “discovered” by the ancients for it was a given, and “invented” through the symbolic algebraic manipulation of the moderns. The Greeks rejected the algebra that arrived through the Babylonians because it was “unnatural”. How might this be the case?

Justice makes us recognize bridges (metaxu in Greek) or connections that we are loathe to make between ourselves and the world and between ourselves and our communities. We loathe our “owingness” and our “indebtedness”. In our loathing we construct idols of the bridges themselves: modern mathematical physics (a predicate of the subject technology) is one such idol. In our modern science, a thoughtlessness is present, (according to Simone Weil and Martin Heidegger) which is indicative of the loss of the capacity for attention or contemplative thinking. The use of algebraic calculation undermines the encounter of human beings with the beauty of the world for it conceives of the world as a “machine” to which we can relate as slave or master, not as loving participants.

To use an example, I love to watch surfers as they try to ride the waves given to them at the beaches nearby. The good surfer “works” in tandem with what the wave gives her: if she try to master the wave, the power of the wave will wipe her out; if she submit totally to the wave, the same thing happens. The surfer is a loving participant through her “work” with the wave and what it gives her, and it is this working relationship with the wave that gives to her her sense of participation in the beauty of the world. Her “techne”, “know how”,  reveals to her the beauty of the world in the web of necessity that has produced  the wave and the sensation produced in her of her ability to work with the wave. That she should know that there is a geometry present in her experience of the beauty of the world would increase, not detract from, her experience of this beauty as she would know that she has attained a genuine perception of the world and not experienced some somnambulistic dream-like state.

Mathematical physics assimilation of the algebra that arrived in the 16th century through the 18th and 19th centuries increased the thoughtlessness of science by subordinating “method” as scientific cognition to symbolic formulae devoid of insight; that is, the actions became subordinated to the principles of the actions which became the actions themselves. This lack of insight is what prevails in today’s education. Symbolic algebraic physics represents the collectivization of thought where science becomes a technique of knowledge production and “thought” and ceases to be the responsibility and activity of any single individual. Nietzsche called this “the highest form of will to power”. The “usefulness” of science becomes predictive success (results) and the technological domination of nature (as Heisenberg has pointed out). This is what is called “technology” in these writings. The fact that the woman in Moscow, Idaho and the man in Moscow, Russia can work “collectively” or “collaboratively” illustrates the intractability of the symbolic collectivization (technology as fate) of thought in contemporary civilization. The loss of any relationship to nature is the cost of such collectivization. Globalization, “international mindedness” are “humanist” off-shoots of the ground of this thinking. But, as Simone Weil would say, in our modern science there is simply nothing to love and this will not change no matter what “idealistic” concepts we attach to it.

Algebra is the substitution of technique, “know how” in the manipulation of numbers for genuine insight into the web of necessity that is the world. The manipulation of formulae replaces insight and this manipulation is directed to its “usefulness”.

KleingJacob Klein in his book Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra points out that algebra alters the very intelligibility of number by making number a symbolic entity. The Greeks understood number as an abstraction not a symbol. I have an abstract idea of “3” through my encounters with three chairs or three cats. “3” means the cats and the chairs. I cannot abstract “-3” because there are no things in nature, no countable collections, of “negative three things”. “-3” designates a symbolic entity. All numbers in the modern conception are treated in this way.  Irrational numbers exist only as symbolic entities.

Because of this lack of connection to nature, the education of scientists and mathematicians today encourages the use of symbolic mathematical entities as replacements for the things that are. It is here that it encounters its thoughtlessness. The arrival of algebra in the 16th century required that nature be viewed in terms of uniform mass in uniform motion through uniform space. Newton’s attempt to retain the physical properties of nature became overruled by Leibniz in his finite calculus and by other mathematicians in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the philosopher Hegel demonstrated, “absolute knowledge” is essentially without a thinker; it is a “collective” thinking of the species human being. The thought of individual thinkers is constituted by the “system” itself founded upon the principle of reason (as outlined by Leibniz).

With the introduction of symbolic theoretical entities in principle (“wave particles”, “curved space-time”), 20th century physics closes off that access to the faculty of “attention” that Simone Weil saw as the necessary ground for that response to nature and the world of human actions that is coherent with love, attention to, reception of and consent to the “otherness” understood as the Good. For Weil, all true thinking is contemplation and all contemplation is prayer.

Simone Weil observes this about modern mathematical thinking and education: “The process of calculation places the signs in relation to one another on the sheet of paper, without the objects so signified being in relation in the mind; with the result that the actual question of the significance of signs ends by no longer possessing any meaning. One thus finds oneself in the position of having solved a problem by a species of magic, without the mind having connected the data with the solution. Consequently, here again, as in the case of the automatic machine, method seems to have material objects as its sphere instead of mind; only, in this case, the material objects are not pieces of metal, but marks made on white paper.” (Weil 1958, 94 Oppression and Liberty. Trans. Arthur Wills and John Petrie. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.) This separation of the mind from our being-in-the-world and from nature is what was “unnatural”” for the Greeks in their understanding of what mathematics and number are and why they rejected the algebra they received.

This separation of the mind from nature is indicated by the distinction between abstraction and symbol. What is the difference between abstraction and symbol? 

What is different, of course, between the Greeks and the moderns is what is meant by “number” and how the being of things in the world is understood. The ideas of Plato, for instance, are abstractions not symbols. When it is said by Aristotle that the ideas of Plato are those Beings that generate the beings or things of experience, what Aristotle means is that the abstraction that is the idea of “house” is a form of genus or “universal” that generates, in cooperation with human beings, the “species” or specifics that are the individual houses of our experience. The “concrete” house is called a house because of its participation (metaxu in Greek), through the ratio (the logos or the “account”, “reason”) created by the mean proportional, to become the constitution of the house’s concrete reality from the “perfection” of the idea “house”. The conception of number in modern algebra is that number is no longer merely an abstraction brought about through the things which we experience and work with in nature but is a symbol, a product of the technological schema or frame placed under nature by human beings. To be a number in modern mathematics is to be a possible value of an algebraic variable.

This shift from abstraction to symbolic requires a change in the view of nature and of human beings’ place within that nature. Our view of nature is “symbolic”: the findings of modern physics can only be reported in “algebraic” calculations i.e. the logos is algebraic symbol. The relation and the logos established by the proportional mean to the things, the human relations to the things that are, is eliminated in so far as it is the algebra produced within the subject that gives “being” and determines the things that are. The things that are are not “givens” in themselves but are “symbolic” constructs from the minds of men. Nature itself is turned into “symbol”.

rutherford-atom-for-carbon_lgWhen, for example, we think of an atom we represent to ourselves a figure that appears probably along the lines of the Rutherford model. But this is pure fantasy: the atom and its being is an algebraic configuration. Number as understood in modern algebra is no longer merely an abstraction from experienced nature but rather a symbolic construction, itself a part of the technological enframing. As a result of this enframing viewing, modern mathematical or algebraic physics gives being to nature itself as a symbolic entity. This is the reason why a woman in Moscow, Idaho and a man in Moscow, Russia can be assured that in their calculations they are dealing with the same entity: the entity is an algebraic calculation. Nature’s particularity is lost in this interpretation as symbol. It is this symbolic understanding that allows for the domineering challenging and control that signifies the technological and is a product of the technological.

I will only say a few words about this difficult topic here. Suffice it to say that Galileo asserted that within the domain of mathematics, human understanding is equal to God (Galileo. 1967. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. 2nd ed. Trans. Stilman Drake. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 103). Descartes, through his understanding of cogitare, removes entirely the impersonal dimension of mathematical necessity (the web of necessity) inherent in the things that are and that is so necessary to the Greeks and in so doing dissolves the mystery of mathematics as a given. Mathematics is the creation and product of the human intellect, reason. Through Descartes, classical science based itself from the beginning on the idea of method as the means of control of our cognitive encounter through our actions with and upon nature according to the demands of the autonomous human intellect, subjectum. The death of God is the by-product of this initiation of humanism during the Renaissance since God is no longer necessary to human beings defining themselves and defining things. The Greek understanding that we are not our own becomes overturned. In the modern we are very much our own and on our own.

For the Greeks, the experience of sensible objects within the radius of our experience of the world is conceived as a circle or “wheel” revolving upon itself. From the diameter of any circle which forms the hypotenuse, the lines or sides of the right-angled triangle cannot exceed the circumference (the horizon, the barrier) of the circle in which it is inscribed. Man’s being is understood as a measured restriction, bounded within and bound to the realm of necessity revealed to him by both what is unconcealed and what is hidden. This realm of necessity is what we call “experience” which in itself is a matter of luck or chance; we might use the metaphor “gravity” for it is subject to the same “laws”. “Experience” for the Pythagoreans was a world of wheels within wheels, circles within circles. Man in his existence was an irrational number for the Pythagoreans, and it was this understanding which led them to their great efforts in trying to understand the nature of number and the nature of man and his existence. Irrational numbers are numbers, such as the square root of 2, that cannot be expressed as fractions involving whole numbers i.e. the part cannot be reconciled to the whole.

Many mathematics teachers today are enamored with the story of Hippasos and his “murder” with regard to the legend of the Pythagoreans. Of course, Hippasos’ “discovery” of the “dangerous square root” is where the Pythagoreans began, not where they ended. Perhaps he deserved to be thrown overboard along with the teachers who teach this story! The Pythagoreans efforts involved rising above the contradictions present to thought from the experience of the world through attention and love to the experience of the world’s order as a whole. The perfection of Greek art and our musical scales and modes are just two of the discoveries that the Pythagoreans bequeathed to the world. For we moderns, through Descartes, man’s experience is a progressing towards a limitless representing and reckoning which recognizes no barriers or horizons with regard to the beings which he encounters. The Greeks would view such viewing and understanding as Descartes’ as hubristic. 

But how can happiness be the end result of what is or what the Greeks would understand as, essentially, a hubristic way of  viewing and being in-the- world? Why choose the word “hubristic” in describing human beings’ comportment and disposition in the world today? Hubris for the Greeks is that pride of human beings which recognizes no barriers or limits and absents the “ego” of self from association with the human community as a whole. These are clearly descriptions of modern human beings’ condition.

We shall reflect on these understandings by examining the passage below from Shakespeare’s King Lear and a subsequent comment on a passage from the play Hamlet.

We are not the first
Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Take them away.
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep: we’ll see ’em starve
first. Come.

Explication of the Passage from King Lear

To attempt a summary and explication of the whole of the greatest work in the English language is impertinent, but a brief introduction is necessary to understand the play as it appears in the scene above.

At this point in the play, Lear and Cordelia, supported by French troops, have lost the civil war for Britain to Edmund’s forces. Lear, as King, has been ultimately responsible for this civil war. At the beginning of the play, he has disowned his ‘truthful’ daughter Cordelia and fallen victim to the flattery and machinations of his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan. He has divided the kingdom in two giving each sister control of half, his intention being to avert future strife. At the same time, Lear wishes to retain the appurtenances of a king, the appearances of a king, while retaining none of the responsibility: Lear is satisfied with the appearances rather than the realities of things. It is this satisfaction with the appearance of things that leaves Lear open to the machinations of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan.

Lear’s responsibility is, chiefly, a moral one. Goneril and Regan soon work together to remove from Lear the power and possessions that he once held. Lear becomes an “O”, a zero, a nothing. In his nothingness, Lear becomes mad and rages against the ingratitude shown by his daughters and the injustice that he sees in the nature of things and in the chaos of the created world as it is. This scene above is Lear’s anagnorisis or moment of enlightenment, the moment in tragedies when all tragic heroes recognize the errors of their ways and the consequences of their hubris. 

Lear ends up houseless and homeless and wanders on the wasteland that is the heath in the heart of a terrible storm. Lear’s physical, mental and spiritual sufferings soon drive him mad. The storm’s effect is a purification of Lear: Lear removes his clothing; his ego is destroyed in the madness; he no longer focuses on himself but is able to see the ‘otherness’ of human beings and to feel compassion and pity for them (in the characters of Edgar as Poor Tom and the Fool) because he sees himself and his humanity in them. Edgar, too, has become a ‘nothing’ due to the machinations of his bastard brother Edmund. Lear has gone from King to nothing and he is ready for re-birth. His ego has blinded him to understanding what his true relationship to his god is: initially he looked upon this god and his power as being something which he, Lear, himself possessed. Lear believed that only he himself possessed the truth.

The play King Lear is a play about the consequences of not knowing who we truly are, as individuals and as a species. Lear, focused as he is on his ego, his Self, is willingly duped by machination in the play; he is willingly duped by flattery as this flattery gives recognition to his social prestige. His suffering and madness show him the true worth of social prestige and bring him to a true understanding of his relation to his god and to other human beings, and this relationship is Love. Love is, as Plato describes it, “fire catching fire”. It is recognition that in the most important things, all human beings are equal in that all are capable of the capacity for Love. It is not without reason that Love has been described as a homeless, houseless beggar.

Many critics suggest that the play King Lear is atheistic; Lear has lost his faith in God. Such an interpretation misses what the play as tragedy is supposed to teach. The above passage suggests that Lear has faith in God: what Lear has come to understand is his true relationship to his God, the true relationship of all human beings to God. Lear has lost the illusion of what he had once understood as God and what his relationship was to that God. It is this illusion that is the trap cast for those who believe that they are in possession of the truth or that truth is of their own creation or doing. The God in King Lear is absent: He will not perform some miracle preventing the hanging of Cordelia by the Captain later in the play; He will not destroy the order of the world and its necessity because of Lear’s perceived injustice of this order. Good does not triumph over the evil of human actions in this play and we, too, by our very silence, are made complicit in the death of Cordelia, the death of “truth”.

The play King Lear shows that the purpose of suffering is to allow the de-creation of our selves, the de-struction of ourselves. For the Pythagoreans, the study of geometry served an identical purpose: the purification of our selves through a contemplative understanding of the things that are. When we stand on the outside of the sphere (the circumference) and are subject to its spinning, we suffer the ups and downs of Fate.

This is the “wheel of fortune” motif that runs throughout the play: Fortune is personified in the passage through alliteration ‘out-frown false fortune’s frown’ to illustrate that it is, in this case, one of human making: even with the best of intentions one can incur the worst: good does not triumph over evil in this sphere of necessity but is subject to the same necessity as are rocks and stones. To decreate one’s Self is to have the Self replaced or reborn by an assimilation into the divine; it is to become one of ‘God’s spies’, to see all with God’s eyes and to see all for God. When a human being sacrifices the Self, his most treasured possession, for assimilation in God, “the gods themselves throw incense” upon this sacrifice. We believe our Self to be our most precious possession; the renouncing of this possession is not pleasant: it is done through suffering. It is the great sacrifice.

The centre of the sphere or wheel is both in time and space and out of time and space. The Self as center here is indifferent to the size of the prison, the size of the circle. For Lear, imprisonment is a liberation, not a restriction.”Suffering (affliction), when it is consented to and accepted and loved, is truly a baptism” (Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction”). Baptism is a spiritual re-birth. The spiritual rebirth for Lear is clear from this passage and from Act III onwards in the play. The attempted suicide of Gloucester in what is called the parallel plot of the play due to his suffering is a counterpoint to this: suicide is a sin against the gods because we falsely believe that our self is our own and of our own making. Lear never considers suicide as an option in the play and his release is given to him in the form of a “broken heart”. Gloucester’s realization that suicide is forbidden because we are not our own results in his finding Edgar again and having ‘his heart burst smilingly’. Contrary to our view, in the world of Shakespeare some kinds of suffering have a purpose but the outcomes are purely a matter of chance.

Our personal knowledge, as is shown in our example of Protagoras above, is our ‘sphere of influence’ on our world and on the other human beings who inhabit our world. That sphere should be seen as composed of wheels within wheels with our actions the spokes of the wheels. The spokes reach out to the circumferences of the wheels: from the diameter, the right angled triangle cannot exceed that circumference. The sphere created by the circumferences where the right-angled triangle may be placed, may be large or small; most of our lives are spent in our attempts to enlarge these spheres. In them we are ’empowered’ to carry out our activities, but the prison of ourselves is still a ‘prison’ beginning with our bodies and our egos which are placated by the social prestige which comes from this fulfillment of our ’empowerment’. We become the ‘poor rogues’ and ‘gilded butterflies’ that Lear and Cordelia will chat with, those who have succumbed to social prestige. The outer edges of the sphere in its spinning indicate the fates of those who are ruled by Fortune: ‘who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out’. It is the fate of all of us who are dominated by the wish for social prestige, recognition. This fate and our desire for this fate is part of the ‘mystery of things’: to see this we must remain at the centre of the sphere where we are not moved by the wheel’s or the sphere’s spinnings, nor are our desires dominated by the wish for social prestige and recognition.

We may view a similar example of this Shakespearean theme from the play Hamlet where Hamlet speaks of his friendship with Horatio:


Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man
As e’er my conversation coped withal.

O, my dear lord,–

HAMLET             Nay, do not think I flatter;
 For what advancement may I hope from thee 

That no revenue hast but thy good spirits,
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter’d?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee

Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal’d thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of hearts,
As I do thee.

It is easy for most of us to accept fortune’s “rewards” and think that we are ‘blest’, but Horatio takes both fortune’s “buffets and rewards” with equal thanks. For the majority of us, this comportment is well nigh impossible.

Lear, through his madness and suffering, has been re-born (see other sections of the play particularly Lear’s awakening when he sees Cordelia as an angel, a mediator, and in the play she is, from the beginning, representative of truth). His self, ego, I has been destroyed. In this scene, Lear demonstrates the friendship that is the love between two unequal yet equal beings. Lear’s ‘kneeling down’ when asked for his blessing in order to ask for forgiveness is the recognition of this equality. It is no longer the view of the Lear who said “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”, a false view of Lear’s at the moment of its occurrence in the play for it is the view of most of us with regard to our own sufferings. Lear’s recognition of “owingness”, “otherness” and reception and consent to these conditions of human life creates the possibility for friendship with others.

It is with a great and terrible irony that after this speech of Lear’s, the following occurs:

Come hither, captain; hark.
Take thou this note;

Giving a paper

Go follow them to prison:
One step I have advanced thee; if thou dost
As this instructs thee, thou dost make thy way
To noble fortunes: know thou this, that men
Are as the time is: to be tender-minded
Does not become a sword: thy great employment
Will not bear question; either say thou’lt do ‘t,
Or thrive by other means.


I’ll do ‘t, my lord.


About it; and write happy when thou hast done.
Mark, I say, instantly; and carry it so
As I have set it down.


I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats;
If it be man’s work, I’ll do ‘t.

The Captain’s final words are a statement for all of us motivated by social prestige. Human crime or neglect, the lack of attention, receptivity and consent, is the cause of most suffering. On the orders of superiors we carry out acts that we believe are “man’s work” i.e. they are not the work of Nature but we ascribe the moral necessity for our actions to Nature: “I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats” i.e. I am not a horse, an animal. We believe that we are compelled to commit immoral actions because we believe Nature imposes its necessities upon us; and, at times, Nature does indeed do so. But if we live with a thoughtful recognition that there are simply acts which we cannot and must not do, we are capable of staying within these limits imposed by the order of the world upon our actions. Such words as the Captain’s have been used by human beings to justify to themselves and to others the reasons for their actions from the committing of petty crimes to genocides. They see their crimes as performing a duty, just following orders.
The root of all crimes is, perhaps, the desire for social prestige whether that is achieved through position, money or recognition. For the Captain, it is Edmund who will determine what ‘happy’ will become for him by his giving to the Captain ‘noble fortunes’; and the Captain believes it. He will achieve his noble fortunes through the committing of an ignoble act. One would need to look far across the breadth and depth of English literature to find two more contrasting views of humanity in a work than that which is presented here in these two brief scenes from King Lear. Human beings are capable and culpable of both forms of action: we have an infinite capacity for Love and forgiveness as well as a finite capacity for committing the most heinous crimes; only Love is both beyond and within the circle, and all human action is done within the circle (or the realm of Necessity).

Contemplation and Calculative Thinking: Living in the Technological World

The passages from King Lear give us an entry to understanding a practical alternative way of being-in-the-world to the current conditioning or ‘hard-wiring’ of our way of being under the technological world-view operating as it does under the principle of reason. This alternative way involves contemplative thinking as opposed to calculative thinking. This contemplative thinking is open to all human beings: it is not a special mental activity, not subject to an IQ test. It is an attitude toward things as a whole and a general way of being in the world. It is the attitude that Lear proposes for himself and Cordelia on how they will spend their time in prison: while they will still be in the world, they will not be of the world. While they will be involved with the “poor rogues” and “gilded butterflies”, the world of these rogues and butterflies will not be their world.

What does this mean for us? It suggests that we are in the technological world, but not of this technological world; we are here in body but not in spirit. We avail ourselves of technological things but we place our hearts and souls elsewhere. This detachment involves both a being-in and a withdrawal-from. Like Lear and Cordelia, we let the things of the technological world go by, but we also let them go on. Like Lear and Cordelia, the detachment is both a “no” to the social and its machinations, but it is also a “yes” to it in that it lets that world go on in their entertaining of it.

Where does calculative thinking rest in all this? Calculative thinking is how we plan, research, organize, operate and act within our everyday world. This thinking is interested in results and it views things and people as means to an end. It is our everyday practical attitude towards things. Contemplative thinking is detached from our ordinary practical interests and requires a detachment from things as in prayer.

Calculative thinking is not just computational thinking. It does not require computers or calculators and it is not necessarily scientific or sophisticated. It would be better understood in the sense of how we call a person “calculating”. When we say this we do not mean that the person is gifted in mathematics. We mean that the person is designing; he uses others to further his own self-interests. Such a person is not sincere: there is an ulterior motive, a self-interested purpose behind all his actions and relations. He is engaged with others only for what he can get out of them. He is an “operator” and his doings are machinations. His being-in-the-world may be said to rest on the principle attributed to H. L. Mencken, a cynical Nietzschean who helped introduce Nietzsche’s thinking to North America: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Calculative thinking is, then, more of a general outlook on things, our ‘way of life’. It is an attitude and approach that the things are there for what we can get out of them. People and things are there for us to exploit. This general outlook is determined by the disclosive looking of technology and its impositional attitude toward things. Things, including human beings, are disposables.

There is no lack of calculative thinking in our world today: never has there been so much planning, so much problem-solving, so much research, so many machinations. TOK itself is a branch and flowering of this calculative thinking. But in this calculative thought, human beings are in flight from thinking. The thinking that we are in flight from is contemplative thinking, the very essence of our being human. In this flight, we are very much like Oedipus who, after hearing the omen from the oracle at Delphi and its prophecy, rashly flees in the hope that he can escape his destiny. As with Oedipus we, too, have become blind and unable to see in our flight from thinking with our rash attempts to “change the world”.

Contemplative thinking, on the other hand, is the attention to what is closet to us. It pays attention to the meaning of things, the essence of things. It does not have a practical interest and does not view things as a means to an end but, much like Lear and Cordelia, dwells on the things for the sake of disclosing what makes them be what they are. Contemplative thinking allows us to take upon ourselves “the mystery of things”, to be “God’s spies” in the two-way theoretical looking of Being upon us and of ourselves upon Being. To be God’s spies we must remove our own seeing and our own looking, that looking and seeing that we have inherited as our “shared knowledge”, and allow Being to look through us. This seeing and looking is not a redemption that is easily achieved. The pain-filled ascent in the release from the enchainment within the Cave to the freedom outside of the Cave or Lear’s suffering and de-struction on the heath in the storm are indications of just the kinds of exertions that are required. King Lear in his anagnorisis has arrived at the truth of what it means to be, as such, and of his place in that Being. Contemplative thinking is a paying attention to what makes beings be beings at all, but it is not a redemption which can be cheaply bought.

The word “con-templation” indicates that activity which is carried out in a “temple”. It is a communing with the divine and is, essentially, what we call “prayer”. It is not the recitation of proscribed prayers. The temple is where those who gather receive messages from the divine and in this reception pray and give thanks. Lear and Cordelia’s prison is, as such, a “temple” to Lear. Within a temple, one receives auguries. An augury is an omen, a being which bears a divine message which must be heard by those to whom it is spoken. In and through this hearing one is given to see the essence of things and to “give back” those essences to Being. Contemplation is the observing of beings just as they exist and attending to their essence. It is a reserved, detached mode of disclosing that expresses itself in gratitude, the giving of thanks. This attention is available to all human beings who through their love, like Lear and Cordelia, are open to the otherness of beings without viewing those beings as serving any other purpose than their own being.  For human beings, it is the highest form of action directed by what the essence of human being is. As the highest form of human being itself, it must be available to all since it is our very nature as human beings. Contemplative thinking is prayer.