Deconstructing the May 2018 Titles

A few notes of warning and guidance before we begin:TOKQuestion

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 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.

My experience has been that candidates whose examples match those to be found on 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.

1. “The fields of study of academic disciplines can overlap, but adopting interdisciplinary approaches to the production of knowledge leads only to confusion.” Discuss this claim.

Title #1 invites us to question how the various ways of knowing determine the various methodologies for each of the areas of knowledge. The “fields of study” are the areas of knowledge or AOKs and are the objects that are studied in each AOK and whether the end result is knowledge or confusion when an interdisciplinary approach is taken. What an “interdisciplinary approach” is needs to be determined. The “approach” determines the “What”, or is determined by the pre-determined understanding of “what something is” that is studied and “How” it is to be studied.

In a preliminary way, we can say that any “approach” is using our ways of knowing and applying the schemata which results from them, the knowledge framework, to a different “field” or different objects for questioning. It is taking the methodology and schemata (framework) of the AOK natural sciences and applying these to the AOK human sciences where human beings are the objects of study rather than protons and electrons, for instance. The schemata is prior to how we recognize or “cognize” the things that we see about us. From it we get what we call “cognition” and the determination of how we will view things. The most predominant example of using a schemata for the cognizing of objects within “interdisciplinary studies” is the use of the “scientific method” in the study of the human sciences. This is shown by the nature of the AOKs included under the human sciences i.e. psychology, economics, politics, etc. Here, the objects of study are those that are of human making not those that are not of human making. Attempts are made to apply the results and laws of the natural sciences to human activities with mixed results which you can use in your RLSs.

The contents of each academic discipline or field of study are pre-determined: bio-logy, for example, already contains within itself a definition of what “life” or “bios” is and must do so in order for its “field of study” or domain to be determined. This already pre-determined understanding of what something is in the “areas of knowledge” is necessary in order for human beings to take a stand among the beings/things or to “approach to” the things to be found in the field of study under consideration and question. This “taking a stand” applies to both personal and shared knowledge. The area of knowledge and the approach to the AOK are pre-determined by the schemata we choose in order to be able to “work with” the things that are to be questioned within each AOK. In our understanding of personal knowledge, the thing must first be determined as something in order for us to cognize it, have an understanding of it, and to bring it to practical use or praxis. The decisive questions for each AOK is “what” the thing is that AOK is considering and the “why” the thing is as it is.

Biology or chemistry must, for instance, build on the discoveries of physics in order to move forward because “physics” studies the physical things, the objects that are about us and are not of our own making. Thus, the research in these disciplines, biology and chemistry, attempts to determine the nature of “life” from that which is lifeless and to find the origins of organic matter in inorganic matter or from inorganic matter. These fields of study are “overlapping” and must be overlapping because they rest on reason as a way of knowing (the principle of reason) and on the language of mathematics that is used in order to communicate their “knowledge” or “findings” to others. Reason and language (mathematics is language) as WOKs determine the methodology that will be used, “the scientific method”, and they pre-determine the “how” of the “viewing” of the things that are in advance and how this “viewing” will be reported. In the human sciences this is shown by its reliance upon “statistics” as “evidence” of the “correctness” of its use of the principle of reason: nihil est sine ratione or “nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a cause”. Reason provides the schemata or framework necessary for the approach to the things. The schemata or framework comes first.

The overlapping of disciplines creates questions, and if the creation of questions is “confusing” then one has to concede that this overlapping is “confusing”. Is it possible for reason to give an account of itself, i.e. what reason is, rationally, and thus to determine its own grounds? Is it possible for emotion to give an account of what it is “emotionally”? Is it possible for human beings to be both the questioner and the object that is questioned in the human sciences and what is the relationship between the summonsers (questioners) and those who are being questioned? Similar questions apply to all the WOKs and to the choices of the “how” the things as a “field of study or AOK are being viewed.

But underlying this title is the need for “certainty” in what we call “knowledge” in order that confusion and obfuscation can be avoided.  Certainty relates to the truth of things, and the truth of things is related to knowledge. Without truth, we have no knowledge. As moderns, we judge the truth of things to be in our calculations about them. Our calculations provide a permanent, secure, standing presence for the objects of study. These calculations help us to rise above what we call “truth relativism” or “truth perspectivism”.

We are more “certain” about the things which we ourselves have made: our computers and our hand phones, for instance, than we are about the things about us that we have not made. This is our “production of knowledge”; we are able to “bring forth” these things from out of our WOKs that have determined what the things about us are. Because we cannot attain to certainty about the things about us and what they are, we dismiss the need for knowing what the things are in themselves and choose to determine for ourselves what they are and what their “value” is to us. We do this through our calculating reason. The things about us become merely objects that are at our disposal; “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is how this is understood in the Arts as an AOK.  This viewing of things as objects determines our cognition, our personal knowledge, and our “personal knowledge” is pre-determined ahead of time since what “knowledge” is and how it is understood has already been pre-determined: human beings, too, become merely objects to be disposed of as “human resources” or “human capital” in the human sciences. It needs to be remembered that what we call the human sciences is a 19th century occurrence or phenomenon; in the history of thought this is very recent. RLEs can be chosen from any of the disciplines within the human sciences.

2. “We know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases” (adapted from JW von Goethe). Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #2 expresses an old knowledge problem: the relation between “doubt” and “trust”. Doubt has always been linked to the search for knowledge and arose with the immediate empirical perceptions of the things about us. They are not what they seem. For the ancients, doubt was placed within the broader horizon of “trust”, but for us moderns “doubt” is the ground from which we begin our search for knowledge because of our need for “certainty” about things and what they are. Students are warned against trying to place Goethe into this quotation: while the research might be interesting, it will not prove useful in responding to this title.

Historical background: Modern philosophy and science finds it foundations in the thinking of Rene Descartes: Cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am.” Descartes’ philosophy grounded what we call the subject/object distinction by beginning with a doubt/distrust in his observations of how things appeared, what we would call “simple facts”. Descartes showed that all physical things can be doubted as to their “whatness” and their “how”, but what could not be doubted was the human being thinking about the nature of the “whatness” and “howness” of the things. Descartes’ thinking was driven by the desire for “certainty”, and this desire is fulfilled by the principle of reason realizing itself in the calculating mathematical relations of the human subject regarding the things that are (language as WOK).

Through Descartes, the focus or paradigm shifted by placing human beings at the centre of the things that are and in their thinking determining what the things are. Rather than Nature establishing the standard of “what” something is i.e. its perfection or completeness, human beings come to determine what something is in their calculations of the relations between themselves and the objects that they behold in the AOKs.

The ancient Greeks and Latins did have doubt as a necessity to the beginning of thinking, but this doubt was enclosed within a greater trust that what is is good and the purpose of thought was to arrive at knowledge of that “goodness” in the things that are i.e. how does one become a good human being; how is the universe an expression of the god’s/gods’ goodness? What is the good life and how do you lead it? In modern thinking, the “goodness” of something is determined by its usefulness to us, and this usefulness determines its “value” for us. “Values” are human creations. Nothing is except in its relation to us and how we “measure” what it is. This is the root of our “to what extent…” questions: there is a measuring of something against an ideal standard of what that something is. The Greeks and Latins had no “values”.

As with many topics in TOK, the popular idea of “truth relativism” and the perspectivism of how one interprets the “what” and “how” that things are arises, but this is really a revisiting of the old historical occurrence of the issues and debates of what knowledge is between the sophists and the philosophers that has been present throughout the history of thinking. With doubt there are no “facts”; there are only interpretations of facts (the things that are). Truth and knowledge are related. All truth is one and is an illumination of the things that are whether one chooses the correspondence, coherence or pragmatic theories of truth. Each is an example of representational thinking: the mind corresponds to, coheres to or with, or makes pragmatic use of the perceptions of the things that are. Many criticize the “alternate facts” of the language of the alternate right at the moment. There are no “alternate facts”, of course; there are only alternative interpretations of the facts or the things that are. Either these interpretations illuminate the things that are or they do not; or in the most spurious cases they are used to convey “intentional ignorance” or obfuscation by those who have other ends in view. Socrates once said: “The opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but madness”. This statement indicates the seriousness of the conclusions we reach when we have come to a decision about what knowledge is.

What we call “personal knowledge” was understood by the Greeks as phronesis and it was the knowledge that is gained from “experience” or praxis. For the Greeks, young people were deficient in “personal knowledge” because they simply lacked the experience that comes with age to make good choices. The end of phronesis is “happiness”: one makes good choices that will lead to one’s happiness. The role doubt plays here is whether or not the choices are good choices and whether or not to trust in authorities that may provide us with advice on the making of the choices: whether those authorities be parents, teachers, doctors, etc. In many cases, the reliance upon “experts” is important in the making of choices since they have the “experience” and the “know how” (techne) that we may not. Examples abound in the tragedies of the Greeks where the heroes fail to make the right choices and the choices that they do make lead to their tragic ends. In many cases, the choices made arise from having trust in “authorities” that are not “good” whether they be doctors, witches or politicians.

  1. “Without the assumption of the existence of uniformities there can be no knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #3 asks us to question our need for uniformities in order to know and to produce knowledge. Students should examine examples of “uniformities” present in what we have come to call knowledge and in our manner of viewing things as objects. “Knowledge frameworks” are based on uniformities which, in turn, are based on the principle of reason which, as a principle, is “uniform” or “universal”. Language and reason as WOKs and how they are conceived and understood is crucial here. Both language and reason as WOKs are uniform although they may manifest themselves in many particularities i.e. our various ways for accounting what reason is or the existence of the many languages present among human beings. While we may have English and German and Indonesian, for instance, they are “one” in that they are all examples of what we call “language”. What language itself is a very great mystery and much thoughtful exploration can take place when one reflects on it.

In our calculations we use “ones” and these “ones” are uniform and interchangeable. But what, exactly, is a “one”? Uniformity requires and relies on abstraction from the concrete particularity of things. In the sciences, all matter is conceived through uniform calculations of uniform masses in uniform motion. Time is conceived as units that are uniform i.e. seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Matter, space and time have been ascribed these uniform qualities by human beings and are our interpretations of the things that are. The knowledge question is whether or not these uniformities, created by human beings, are “real” in their “existence”? Are these uniform entities the true reality of the nature of the things they attempt to describe? Do we arrive at the thing’s essence, what the thing is, from these attempted descriptions? Modern physics suggests that this might not be the case.

In the AOK Human Sciences, the use of statistics is an attempt to make uniform that which is not uniform i.e. the object of study is human beings. Can this be done and is knowledge arrived at when we use statistics to understand the activities of human beings? Our viewing of the world as uniform is a decision that human beings make about the things that are. It determines our “seeing” and how the things about us are. Historically, we arrived at this viewing of things through the philosophy of Descartes. How we view a road, a tree or a child is pre-determined for us. The fact/value distinction in the human sciences (and the natural sciences) says that statements of “fact” must be distinguished from statements of “value”. But “values” are present prior to our interpretation of “facts” and they will determine what we consider the facts to be.

Counterclaims or discussions may be approached through Art as an AOK. In examining Art one needs to ask the questions “What is art”? What is a “work” of art? How is art present in the work? How does the particularity of the work manifest the uniformity of what art is conceived to be? How is a work of art knowledge? i.e. how is a Shakespearean drama, in its art, knowledge? What is it knowledge of? What is the connection between knowledge and art?

  1. “Suspension of disbelief” is an essential feature of theatre. Is it essential in other areas of knowledge? Develop your answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #4 is somewhat of a repetition of title #2 i.e. the relation between “doubt” (disbelief) and “trust”. When we speak of an “essential feature” of something, we are talking about something’s essence or “what something is” and “how something is”. In exploring this title it is essential to examine the historical background and development of the AOKs that one is going to choose to consider. Whether or not The Arts as an AOK is to be chosen for this title is a choice that has to be considered carefully. It may be best to avoid it altogether.

The title makes the assumption that Shakespeare’s King Lear, for instance, is an object and that one must go beyond “disbelief” in the “rationality”, or lack of “rationality”, of the play in order to experience the true art and nature of the play. When we experience things as objects, we do not truly know them in their essence. By this I am suggesting that if one treats King Lear as an object, one will not be able to approach the truth of the play.

Our treatment of the things about us as objects limits our emotional response or Emotion as a WOK when we take them into consideration and questioning. Through this position of “doubt” as one of “command” in which the thing or object is summoned before us to give us its reasons for being as it is i.e. we make “judgements” as to what the thing is. This commanding/doubting is not a process, but is the initial ground from which, and upon which, we view the things of the world. This commanding viewing dismisses loving as a possible WOK the thing and the world and the things within it. This summonsing commanding position of our “subjective” view of the world which, historically, was made possible through the thinking of Descartes is made necessary when one considers that the world about us is chaos and that the constituents of chaos must be given “definitions” and placed within a “schema” or knowledge framework in order for them to be made “secure” and to make sense to us or for the world to be made “rational” before we can deal with it. The human being is at the centre of this “defining” in that it is human reason as a way of knowing which is responsible for the “setting of the limits” or the “horizons” of the thing and what the thing can be in its possibilities. It is at the root of our “to what extent” questions since “extent” is the “horizon” of something.

We “suspend our disbelief” in the AOKs of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences because these AOKs are based on reason (and we have a “belief” in reason) and reason helps us to “secure” and commandeer the world within our “knowledge frameworks” and “schemas”. If we suspend our belief in reason, we do not have mathematics and natural science as we know them. We can come to view the world as rational because, through our viewing, the world can be seen as “rational” with no contradictions and with “cause and effect” operating and understood and aiding us in securing the things and their possibilities. The justification for our belief in reason is assured by the results we arrive at through reason and the pragmatic usefulness we make of them for securing our being in the world. For example, we believe that if a teacher or a critic makes an absurd interpretation of King Lear nothing further happens; should a doctor misdiagnose a patient under her care, the consequences could be disastrous. Perhaps absurd interpretations in The Arts do lead to further consequences that we are unaware of further down the road.

If religion is “what we bow down to or what we look up to’, our belief in the principle of reason is the most “fundamental” belief for through it we are able to secure our survival and, in this securing, have certainty of reason’s efficacy towards our “salvation” in a world of chaos.

  1. ‘The quality of knowledge produced by an academic discipline is directly proportional to the duration of historical development of that discipline.” Explore this claim with reference to two disciplines.

Title #5 contains a number of assumptions that need to be questioned. The first assumption is that “knowledge” has a “quality”: what exactly is “quality” when it refers to knowledge? It seems that in order to have “quality” the knowledge must be useful in some respect. It is not hard to find examples where this can be justified: common sense tells us that there has been progress in the quality of knowledge present in the medical sciences, for instance. “Qualities” are “values” that we give to things in relation to how useful these things are to our ends, whatever those ends may be.  Some comparisons and contrasts can include the knowledge of traditional disciplines and that of Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

One of the implicit assumptions of the title is that knowledge “progresses” i.e. develops. The discoveries of the sciences and their applications would certainly be evidence of the progression of what we call knowledge. But what is this? From other responses here, you can see that the application of the principle of reason produces what we call knowledge which is used to enhance our “security” i.e. the overpowering of nature and the determination of the things of nature to our own ends. We take what we have not made and turn it into something that we make i.e. light into lasers, hydrogen into bombs.

The fields that many of you have chosen to study in IB have been determined by the “value” that is placed on the knowledge to be gained from those fields in terms of ultimate monetary rewards. Such choices are “pragmatic”. These fields are “valued” by the communities of which you are members. Many of you are studying to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. in the hope that your studies will provide you with a good, secure income from which you can begin your search for “happiness”. Any look at the data of what students are studying in the IB indicates this. The historical development of these various “disciplines” and the knowledge framework or schema encompassing the study within these disciplines is based on the principle of reason. While the principle of reason was defined relatively recently in the 17th century by Gottfried Leibniz, the German philosopher, it has been present and in operation throughout the history of Western thinking from its beginnings. However the Greeks, from where the principle of reason originates held Art, particularly poetry, to be higher than Reason (until the thinking of Socrates). This could be based on the “trust” that they had with regard to the nature of things (although this was still present in the thinking of Socrates and his view of Reason and its efficacy and ends is very different from our current view). If you are going to discuss The Arts as an AOK for this title it should be remembered that aesthetic theories of art arrive simultaneously with the arrival of the definition of the principle of reason in the 17th century. It is important to question Art as an “aesthetic theory”. The true paradigm shift that occurs in Western thinking, primarily through Descartes and Newton, can also be questioned as to whether or not it too follows some “historical development”.

  1. Robust knowledge requires both consensus and disagreement.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

“Robust” is the key term that needs to be defined and discussed with regard to this title. A dictionary definition of the term would be insufficient in dealing with it. Would we define a knowledge that is “robust” one that allows us to apply it to our world of things and to make use of them? “Robust” is a value that is placed on the knowledge that we discover and refers to its practical uses or applications i.e. a knowledge of something can be assumed to be “robust” if we can make use of it in our everyday dealings in the world. The Greeks referred to this type of knowledge as techne. The discoveries of quantum physics, for instance, can be referred to as “robust” knowledge as their applications have brought about the information technology that is the chief characteristic of our age.  At the cutting edge of physics, consensus and disagreement abounds over quantum physics grounds, but there is no disagreement over its applications. The knowledge “produced” gives us our hand phones, computers, nano-technology, lasers, etc.  “To produce” means to “bring forth” from out of the theoretical viewing, just as “produce”, the noun form, is that which is brought forth by nature from a season’s growth.

The Natural and Human Sciences are the two AOKs that lend themselves most readily to a discussion of this title as both use “the scientific method” to achieve and report their results which bring with them either consensus/agreement or disagreement or something in between. The use of Reason and Language as WOKs and the roles that they play in arriving at consensus/disagreement can be explored here.

How would we define “robust knowledge” in the AOK History, for example? The data that is compiled through “research” becomes “fact” based on “consensus”. There are no “facts” that we have knowledge of; what are called “facts” is that which can be determined by “consensus” of opinion or agreement in interpretation.  However, “alternative facts” do not exist; there are only alternative interpretations of facts. In this area, common sense knowledge, what the Greeks called phronesis, is what is operative and common sense or “experience” is the chief end of the study of History. We study History in order to act rightly in the future: History is not so much about the past as much as it is about the future. The role of History in establishing “personal knowledge” can be discussed as well as the WOKs memory, reason, language or imagination. Consensus and disagreement relate to interpretation.

The Arts is another AOK that could be considered with regard to this title. Is there any consensus in Art with regard to the “value” of Art? What is Art? Etc. Does Art produce “robust knowledge”? Can the play Macbeth be considered “robust knowledge”? If so, of what? What would “robust knowledge” in the AOK of the Arts be? How would it be arrived at?


OT 1: Technology and Knowledge: Ethics

computer laptopOT 1: Knowledge and Technology: The Computer as Fate:

Inquiry question: By using technology as a way of being-in-the-world, we will question the statement “The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used.”

The instrumental view of technology that we have been discussing in our writings sees technology as a tool like any other and that it can be used by human beings for good or ill.  As we have gone along our path to thinking about technology as a way that human beings dwell among the things of the world and address those things, we have seen that technology is more of a “fate”; it is a mode (way) of being in the world that has arisen from particular historical conditions and social circumstances (contexts) that determine what we have come to call “mindsets”. This “what” of technology has determined our “how” of being-in-the-world and “how” we understand our being-in-the-world, what we call our “experience” of the world. It is part of what we have come to call our “shared knowledge” or history, and these “mindsets” or cognitions have been established over hundreds of years.

One finds this understanding and interpretation of technology in the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The view of computers examined here arrives from the view of reason and nature that brought forth and came from the mastering sciences of European thinking. Such a view of reason and of nature cuts human beings off from any notion of a transcendent good (the Sun in Plato’s allegory of the Cave) and from any notion of a transcendent justice or a standard of justice other than that of our own making. It is a deficient view that sees human beings in control of determining how technology will be applied in praxis and it determines the ethics of human actions outside of and beyond the mechanical, instrumental view of technology.

The situation in which we find ourselves currently seems obvious: we are faced with calamities concerning the climate, environment, population, resources, and pollution if we continue to pursue the policies that we have pursued over the last few centuries. Our attempts to deal with these interlocking practical emergencies will require a vast array of skills and knowledge; and that is what most of you are being educated towards. Technological mastery will need to be used to solve the problems that technology itself has created. The focus of this future mastery will be in the human sciences: as the German philosopher Heidegger has pointed out, the governing and determining science of the future is inevitably going to be cybernetics. Cybernetics sees human beings as resources and disposables. Cybernetics is the ground of the aspiration for AI, artificial intelligence.

The realization of this cybernetic future will find its place most securely in the medical profession, particularly the bio-medical field. Here in Singapore we see a realization of this through the Singapore government’s focus on bio-medicinal research as one of its core industries of the future. What has been called “late stage capitalism” increasingly attempts to establish itself as “the mental health state” with the necessary array of dependent arts and sciences, the example of cosmetic surgery being one of them. What we have done to nature, we first had to do to our own bodies and this relation to our bodies was determined a long time ago. Both Hamlet and Descartes refer to their bodies as ‘a machine’, but references to the human body as a machine are many from the Renaissance onwards.

Plato called the practical wisdom of politics the royal techne—that art which is higher than all particular arts because it is called to put the other arts in a proper order of least important to most important. It established a hierarchy. We have noticed in the questioning of the TOK program that the hierarchy established is “our self” as knower along with “ourselves” or “a community of knowers” that is called our history or “shared knowledge”. Our living in communities is “politics”, both in the ancient and modern sense and our “shared knowledge” is determined by our communities on what is best, or the highest, to be known. Anyone who is awake in any part of the IB Diploma program knows that the paradigm of knowledge (the principle of reason realized in the algebraic calculations that are identical with “logic”) stamps the institutions and curriculum so that what students are required to know and be able to do to be ‘qualified’ is determined by this destiny of knowing.

What had been called “politics” by the ancients, our living in communities, has been replaced by “social psychology” for the moderns. This “social psychology” is “cybernetics”—the mastery of humans by other humans and arises from the demanding, commandeering stance of our “subjectivity”, our “humanism”. From within this perspective, we get our terms “human resources” and “human capital” and the corporations, human organizations and bureaucracies that are driven to utilize these “resources” and “capital” most efficiently and effectively. Efficiency and effectiveness are the raison d’etre of these organizations and the sometimes banal, anal managers within them.

In most of the TOK discussions that occur (and will occur), the difficult choices which will be necessary in the future are discussed within the assumptions of the ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ which shall direct our creating of history through our wills and desires, the determination of the social contexts in which we exist.  If we are to deal with the future “humanely” (that is, in a “human” fashion), our acts of ‘free’ mastery in creating history must be decided within the light of certain ‘ideals’ so that we can preserve certain human ‘values’ and see that ‘quality of life’ and quantity (economic prosperity) is safeguarded and extended. We call these our “ethics”. Clearly, the problem of dealing with these future crises involves great possibilities of tyranny and we must be careful that in meeting these decisions we maintain the ‘values’ of free government. In his Republic, Plato places democracy next to tyranny as among the lowest orders of political organization because both are based on the lowest aspirations of human being, that of the satisfaction of the human appetites done in “freedom”.  “Freedom” in the modern has come to displace “virtue” as the highest end for which human beings strive and find their “fittedness” within it.

NietzscheIn our TOK discussions, the way we put the questions/themes that relate to the tasks of the future, the future of our students (your futures) as the leaders of that future, involves the use of concepts such as ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’ or ‘our creating of history’. These concepts were first brought to centre stage by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The use of these concepts obscures the fact that these very concepts have come forth from within the ‘technological world-view’ or ‘mindset’ that gives us an image of ourselves and what we are from within that within. These terms are used “unthinkingly” from within this “world-view” and do not allow us to gain the openness necessary to be able to discuss the questions in any meaningful way and, thus, we have the circularity of many of the discussions that take place in TOK. The Greeks understood these outcomes as aporia. Aporia are the ‘dead ends’ that many discussions lead to. We abhor “dead ends”.

The task in TOK is thus a negative one: to allow the concepts to come to light in their essence so that we may be free for something positive beyond them.

To do this we will look at “the computer as a fate” or a destining of human beings. This discussion arises from a radio show that I was involved in some years ago, in which two guests, experts in computers, both held the instrumental view of technology: that the computer does not impose on us the ways that it should be used. They believed that human beings have the command and are empowered to determine whether computers will be used for good or ill. They viewed computers as both instruments and tools that are under and at human beings’ disposal. This is the commonly held view and it dominates many discussions of what technology is and will be in the future. It ignores the fact that computers are one of the end products or flowerings of that essence which is the destiny of technology. To elaborate the analogy: technology is the acorn; the computer is the oak.

In the assertion “the computer does not impose the ways it should be used”, the use of the word “should” implies a choice. The statements made by these men who were our talk show guests came from their intimate knowledge of computers. But such a statement transcends the intimacy of that knowledge in the sense that the statement is more than a description of any given computer or what is technically common to them as machines. Because they wished to make statements about the possible good or evil purposes for which computers can be used, they expressed what computers are in a way which is more than a technical description. According to our guests, they are instruments made by human skill for the purpose of achieving certain human goals. They are “neutral” instruments in the sense that the morality of the goals for which they are or can be used is determined outside of them; that is, the ethics of their use exists in a separate realm from their creation as instruments.

In expressing this instrumental view of technology, we can see that computers are obviously instruments because their capacities have been built into them by human beings; and it is human beings who must set up the operating of those capacities for the purposes that they have determined. All instruments can potentially be used for wicked purposes and the more complex the instrument, the more complex the possible evils. But if we apprehend computers for what they are, as neutral instruments, (according to these gentlemen) we are better able to determine rationally their potential dangers. That is clearly the first step in coping with the potential dangers that they may be used for evil purposes. We can see that these dangers lie in the potential decisions human beings make about how to use computers, and not to the inherent capacities of the machines themselves.

This view is the instrumental view of most of us regarding technology and it is so strongly given to us that it seems common sense itself. It is the box. We are given an historical situation which includes certain objective technological facts. It is up to us as human beings in our freedom to meet that situation and to shape it with our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’, our ‘ethics’. But the values and ideals come from the same crucible, the same ontology, that allowed the computer to come into existence in the first place.

Despite the decency and common sense of the statement “Computers do not impose on us the ways they should be used”, when we try to think about what is being said in it, it becomes clear that computers are not being allowed to appear before us for what they are, that is, their essence is being obscured.

The “not” or the negation in the statement “the computer does not impose” concerns the computer’s capacities or capabilities, not its existence. Yet, clearly, computers are more than their capacities or capabilities. They are put together from a variety of materials, beautifully fashioned by a vast apparatus of fashioners. Their existence has required generations of sustained efforts by chemists, metallurgists, and workers in mines and factories. They require a highly developed electronics industry and what lies behind that industry in the history of science and technique and their reciprocal relations. They have required that human beings wanted to understand nature, and thought the best way to do so was by putting it to the question as object so that it could reveal itself. They have required the discovery of modern algebra and the development of complex institutions for developing and applying algebra. Nor should this be seen as a one-sided relationship in which the institutions necessary to the development of the machines were left unchanged by the discovery of algebra (here I am speaking of the universities and the recent colleges of applied arts and technology). These post-secondary institutions determine what will be important to know for those who intend to enter them i.e. they will determine what it means to be ‘qualified’.

To understand our educational system is to know that the desire for these machines and other similar tools shapes our institutions at their heart and determines our curriculum, in what the young (you) are encouraged to know and do (any view of student choices in Group subjects in the IB Diploma indicates this, but the overall structure and intent of the requirements of the Diploma reveals this, also). The computer’s existence has required that the clever of our society be trained within the massive assumptions about knowing and being and making which have made algebra actual. Learning and education within such assumptions is not directed towards a “leading out” but towards an “organizing within”. This means and entails that those who rule any modern society will take the purposes of their ruling increasingly to be congruent with this account of knowing. The requirements for the existence of computers is but part of the total historical situation (the word ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ might be too ambiguous to be used here) which is given to us as modern human beings. The conditions of that historical situation are never to be conceived as static determinants (as something which cannot be changed), but as a dynamic interrelation of tightening determinations (the box gets smaller in terms of choices once the most efficient results have been established).

Computers are obviously, within modern common sense, instruments, and instruments are always things which are made to be at human disposal. However, when the capacities or capabilities of these machines are abstracted from their historical existence, and when their capacities or capabilities are morally neutralized in the negative ‘do not impose’, we shut ourselves off from what ‘instrumentality’ has come to mean.

Computers are one kind of technology, one example of the flowering of its essence. But “technology” is a very recently arrived word. Two Greek words, techne and logos, are brought together in a combination that would have been unthinkable until recently. The new word ‘technology’ is able to stand because it brings forth to us the new situation: a quite novel dependence of science upon art and a quite novel dependence of art upon science—in fact, a quite novel reciprocal relation between ‘knowing’ and ‘making’. Look at the Mac Book Pros or PCs or the devices which you are using to view this writing and one can see the flowering of this reciprocal relationship. As in all reciprocal relationships, both parties are changed by the engagement.

This novel relationship of making and knowing stands at the heart of the modern era (by the “modern era” I mean since Newton’s science and Descartes’ philosophy). The simple characterization of the computer as a neutral instrument makes it sound as if instruments are now what instruments have always been and so hides from us what is completely novel, unique and new about modern instrumentality. The gulf in our understanding was made explicit by our guests’ use of the discovery of fire as an example of technology’s neutrality. In comparing the “discovery” of fire to the making of computers, our guests hid from us (not in any malevolent way) what we have to understand if we are to understand technology, as if the instrumentality of modern technologies could be morally neutral.  This account of the computer as neutral raises up in the statement, in opposition to that neutrality, an account of human freedom which is just as novel as our new instruments.

Human freedom is conceived in the strong sense of human beings as autonomous—the makers of our own laws and our own selves. This is also a quite new conception. It is first thought systematically in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who was critiquing the philosophy of the French philosopher Rousseau. It is also a conception without which the coming to be of our modern civilization would not and could not have been. But it is a conception the truth of which needs to be thought because it was not considered true by the wise men of many civilizations before our own. The statement ‘the computer does not impose’ holds a view of the world with neutral instruments on one side and human autonomy on the other. But it is just this view that needs to be thought if we are concerned with understanding the essence of technology and of understanding the essence of modern instrumentality, and if we are to see these as being a ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

How widely are we being asked to take the word ‘ways’ in the assertion that the computer does not impose the ways? Even if the purposes for which a computer’s capabilities should be used are determined outside of itself, are not its inherent capabilities determinative of the ‘ways’ it can be used? We use computers to record students’ skills and ‘behaviours’. We use the data to control or assist teacher training in our PYP, MYP, and DP programs. The facts of our day-to-day instruction are abstracted so that they may be classified. Where classification rules, identities and differences can only appear in its terms (results). Classification is used by us both in our desire to know but also because of the convenience of organization. As our institutions of education grow larger, this ‘convenience of organization’ will come to dominate and will eliminate the heterogeneity of what those institutions were in the past: uni-versities become multi-versities. The point being made here is simply that the statement about computers tends to hide the fact that their very capabilities entail that the ways they can be used are never neutral. They can only be used in homogenizing ways. And the questions about the goodness of homogenization or decentralization is excluded from thinking about the essence of technology.

A clearer example might be in using the automobile: “the automobile does not impose the ways it will be used”. All of us have experienced the inconvenience in this part of the world of societies in which the automobile has not, as of yet, come to dominate. Societies where automobiles dominate tend to be much the same as each other and we find these societies much more efficient and convenient for ourselves.  Yet, we cannot represent the automobile to ourselves as a ‘neutral instrument’. Here in Singapore, 20% of land use is given over to the infrastructure required for the automobile. But also, if we represent the automobile as a neutral instrument, we have abstracted the productive functions of Honda, Toyota and General Motors or Standard Oil and the other major oil conglomerates from their political and social functions, just as their public relations people would want. Moreover, we would have abstracted the automobile from the relations between such corporations and the public and private corporations of other countries. After all, to any sane person, the Iraq War was over oil; and the subsequent loss of lives, according to the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, was one and a half million Iraqi citizens. When one thinks of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ from within technology, one cannot ignore the continued homogenization of the central corporations in our everyday lives and the tremendous growth in their power over our lives, including the ability of driving us into wars.

Aristotle has pointed out that human beings are the ‘religious animal’, and the religion for most human beings who have lost any kind of transcendental faith in a god is the ‘belief in progress’. This belief can be described as the good progress of the race in the direction of the universal society of free and equal human beings, that is, towards the universal and homogeneous state, what is dubbed “international mindedness” in the IB curriculum. They assert that the technology, which comes out of the account of reason given in the modern European sciences, what we have called the principle of reason, is Kantthe necessary and good means to that end. That account of reason assumes that there is something which we call ‘history’ over against nature, and that it is in that ‘history’ that human beings have acquired their rationality. In the thought of the French philosopher Rousseau about the origins of human beings, the concept of reason as historical makes its extraordinary public arrival. Darwin’s Origin of Species is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Kant’s great intellectual achievement was not (as many of the British seem to think) the attempt to overcome David Hume’s arguments regarding causality, but the attempt to overcome the thinking of Rousseau and his position of the historicality of human reason. There are far more references to Rousseau in Kant’s work than to Hume who, Kant stated, had ‘awoken him from his dogmatic slumber’.

The German philosopher Heidegger has said that capitalism and communism are simply predicates of the subject technology: the Presidents of the USA and China float down the same river (technology) in different boats (political ends). To put this in the context of our discussion, the same apprehension of what it is to be ‘reasonable’ leads human beings to build computers and to conceive of the universal, homogeneous society as the highest political goal. The ‘ways’ such machines can be used must be at one with certain conceptions of political purposes, because the same kind of ‘reasoning’ made the machines and formulated the purposes or the ends. To put the matter extremely simply: the modern ‘physical’ sciences (the group 4 subjects, Natural Science) and the modern ‘Human Sciences’ (the group 3 subjects) have developed in mutual interpenetration, and we can only begin to understand that mutual interpenetration in terms of some common source from which both sciences found their grounding. That common source is the principle of reason used to understand the environment as “object”, and that principle continues to determine our understanding of the arts and the sciences today.

To think ‘reasonably’ about the modern account of reason is of such difficulty because that account has structured our very thinking over the last centuries. Because we are trying to understand reason in the very form of how we understand reason is what makes it so difficult. The very idea that ‘reason’ is that reason which allows us to conquer objective human and non-human nature controls our thinking about everything. This is the box that we are required to try to somehow think out of. It is our Cave.

The root of modern history lies in our experience of ‘reason’ and the interpenetration of the human and non-human sciences that grew from that root. It is an occurrence that has not yet been understood, and it is an event that must come to be thought here in TOK. The statement ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ hides that interpenetration. To repeat: the instrumental understanding of technology simply presents us with neutral instruments that we in our freedom can shape to our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. But the very concepts of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ come from the same form of reasoning that built the computers. ‘Computers’ and ‘values’ both come from that stance which summoned the world before it to show its reasons and bestowed ‘values’ on that world. Those ‘values’ are supposed to be the creations of human beings and have, linguistically, taken the place of the traditional concept of ‘good’ which was not created by human beings but which human beings recognized. Computers do not present us with neutral means for building any kind of society. All their alternative ‘ways’ lead towards the universal, homogeneous state, “globalization” to use our modern understanding of this, although the term “globalization” is becoming somewhat passé these days. Our use of these alternative ways is exercised within that mysterious modern participation in what we call ‘reason’, and it is this participation that is most difficult to think in its origins and what is so poorly being attempted here in these writings.

The strongest ambiguity in the statement ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ is presented to us as if human beings ‘should’ use these machines for some purposes and not for others. But what does the word ‘should’ mean in advanced technological societies? Is not the essence of our difficulty contained in that this ‘shouldness’, as it was once understood and affirmed, can no longer hold us in its claiming?

‘Should’ was originally the past tense of ‘shall’. It is still sometimes used in a conditional sense to express greater uncertainty about the future than the word ‘shall’: (‘I shall get a raise this year’ is more certain than ‘I should get a raise this year’.) ‘Should’ has gradually taken over the sense of ‘owing’ from ‘shall’. (In its origins, ‘owing’ was given in the word ‘shall’ when used as a transitive verb. See the concepts of ‘indebtedness’ and ‘responsibility’ in the discussion of technology in that writing.) In the sentence ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’, we are speaking about human actions that express ‘owing’. If we change the statement to a positive form ‘the computer does impose on us the ways it should be used’, the debt would probably be understood as from human beings to the machine. We can say of a good car that we ‘owe’ it to the car to lubricate it properly and maintain it properly if we want the car to do what it is fitted for—which is, in the traditional usage, its good—then we must look after it. But the ‘should’ in the statement about the computer is clearly not being used about what is owed from human beings to the machine. What is, then, the nature of the debt spoken? To what or to whom do we human beings owe it? Is the debt conditional? For example, if human beings ‘should’ use computers only in ways that are compatible with constitutional government and never as instruments of tyranny, to what or to whom is this required support of constitutional government owed? To ourselves? To other human beings? To evolution? To nature? To history? To reasonableness? To God? Our confusion over this reality is revealed in our day-to-day political doings.

To characterize the great change that has taken place among those who consider themselves to be ‘modern people’ that ‘goodness’ is apprehended in a much different way from previous societies. ‘Goodness’ is now apprehended in a way which excludes from it all sense of ‘owingness’. What was the traditional Western view of ‘goodness’ is that which meets us with an excluding claim and persuades us that in obedience to that claim we will find what we are fitted for as human beings. The modern view of ‘goodness’ is that which is advantageous to our creating ‘richness of life’ or ‘quality of life’.

What is true of the modern conception of goodness (which appears in advanced technological societies and distinguishes them from older conceptions of goodness) is that it does not include the assertion of an ‘owed’ claim which is intrinsic to our desiring. ‘Owing’ is always provisory on what we desire to create. Obviously, we come upon the claims of others and our creating may be limited particularly by the state because of what is currently permitted to be done to others. However, such claims whether within states or internationally, are seen as contractual, that is, provisional and those ‘promises’ are being broken regularly. This exclusion of non-provisional owing from our interpretation of desire means that what is summoned up by the word ‘should’ is now no longer what was summoned up among our ancestors.  It always includes an ‘if’. This has led to the confusion in our Ethics where morals, laws, etc. are considered “ethics” where ethics becomes the questioning of principles of action (phronesis) rather than the actions themselves as these actions were understood by Aristotle from whom the word ‘ethics’ derives, for instance. “Ethics” comes to be seen as a principle because of the vacuum that has been created through the obliteration of the concept of virtue and its relation to the good. The arrival in the world of the changed interpretation of goodness is interrelated to the arrival of technological civilization. The liberation of human desiring from any supposed excluding claim, so that it is believed that we freely create ‘values’, is a face of the same liberation in which human beings overcame chance by technology—the liberty to make happen what we want to make happen; to change the world through mastery.

‘The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ asserts the very essence of the modern view (the human ability to freely determine what happens) and then puts that freedom in the service of the very ‘should’ that the same modern apprehension has denied. The resolute mastery to which we are summoned in ‘does not impose’ is the very source of difficulty in apprehending goodness as ‘should’. Therefore, the ‘should’ has only a masquerading resonance when it is asked to provide moral content to the actions we are summoned to concerning computers. It is a word carried over from the past to be used in a present that is only ours because the assumptions of that past were criticized out of existence. The statement therefore cushions us from the full impact of the uniqueness it asks us to consider. It makes us forgetful against wondering and questioning about the disappearance of ‘should’ in its ancient resonance, and what this disappearance might portend for the future.

The commonality of statements in our modern world and in our education such as ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ are needed to buttress the morality of ourselves in our daily decisions, our ethics. The more it becomes possible to conceive that we might not be able to control the immensity of the technological apparatus and the constant emergencies it presents us with, the more intense become the calls for moral ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. Technological society is presented to us as a neutral means, something outside ourselves, and human beings are presented as in touch with some constant, from out of which constancy they are called upon to deal with the new external crises. But obviously, all that is given us in the technological sciences denies that constancy, that standard, that eternality. What happens is that constancy is appealed to in practical life and denied in intellectual life. The language of ‘eternality’ or ‘standards’ is removed from all serious public realms. The residual and unresonant constant appealed to in the statement about the computer is ‘should’, but the intellectual life that allowed the coming into being of the computer has also made this ‘should’ unthinkable.

When we speak of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ in education as a way of approaching technological situations, we must realize that ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’, and ‘the creating of history’ are at the very heart of what our technological civilization is.

Ontology refers to our way of being in the world. Every scientific discovery or application comes from an ontology which so engrosses us that it can be called our Western destiny. Technology is not something over against ontology; it is the ontology of the age, the metaphysic of the age. It is for us an almost inescapable destiny. The question is: what is the ontology which is declared in technology? Technological civilization, our shared knowledge, enfolds us as our destiny.

Coming to meet us out of the very substance of our past, that destiny, that legacy, has now become not only our own but that of the species as a whole, and it is the destiny which drives the IB curriculum forward. “The future comes to meet us from behind”, as the Greeks would have it. Moreover, this destiny is not alone concerned with such obvious problems that we can blow ourselves up or can cure diabetes or have widespread freedom from labour or watch our distant wars on television or over the Internet. It is a destiny that presents us with what we think of the whole, with what we think is good, with what we think the good is, with how we conceive insanity and madness, beauty and ugliness. It is a destiny which enfolds us in our most immediate experiences: what we perceive when we encounter a bird or a tree, a child, or a road. This destiny is not one in which we can pick and choose. Like all destinies, it is a package deal, and like all destinies it ‘imposes’.

[1] Martin Heidegger in 1935 defined the political movement of National Socialism in Nazi Germany as “the meeting of modern man with a global technology”. Today, we define this coming together of man and technology as ‘globalization’. Having an opportunity to change this definition of National Socialism in 1953 with the publication of An Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger chose not to do so.

TOK: Imagination as a Way of Knowing

Imagination as a Way of Knowing

“What,” it will be Questioned, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

“I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.”—William Blake from “The Last Judgment”

 “I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty of both body & mind to exercise the Divine Art of Imagination” (Jerusalem, 77).

Blake newton

It may seem odd to begin discussing Imagination as a way of knowing by presenting a copy of William Blake’s Newton.

Isaac Newton is shown sitting at the bottom of the sea, naked and crouched on a rocky outcropping covered with algae that, suspiciously, appears to be shaped like a toilet bowl or urinal. Newton’s attention is focused on mathematical diagrams he draws with a compass upon a scroll that first appears as cloth and then seems to unravel from over his left shoulder and then seems to turn to paper once it is grounded upon the sea-bed. He ignores the nature that is behind him and his attitude towards it is somewhat comparable to that which we have towards that which goes into our toilet bowls: it is placed there to be disposed of. A jellyfish or Polypus swims by toward the rocks upon which Newton is sitting. The compass in Newton’s left hand is a smaller version of that held by Urizen in Blake’s The Ancient of Days as well as the compasses or tongs (that which grasps things) which the mythical figure of Los holds in Blake’s other paintings. What is grasped with the left hand and what is grasped with the right hand are significant for Blake and more will be said later about this significance.

The purpose behind this beginning is to show what the imagination as a way of knowing is not firstly, and then to proceed to try to identify what exactly the imagination is when we speak of it as a way of knowing. William Blake will be used to identify what the imagination is since he is the greatest example of its use that we English speaking peoples have. When finished, some will view Blake’s idea of the imagination as “madness”, which is what many of his contemporaries did. But in contrast to Blake’s “madness”, we shall have to look at, and question, what we have chosen in its place as our ways of viewing and knowing the world.

The imagination as a way of knowing is not “fantasy” and must be distinguished from fantasy. For many of us, we have such a difficult time distinguishing between what is and what is not reality. We must, if we are to live, have a conception of reality. Our conception of what reality is is prior to our experience of that reality. The conception determines ahead of time how we experience reality: what we see when we see a road, a flower, a child, or a computer; and this conception of reality comes to define what reality is for us. It provides us with our “understanding” of what we believe reality to be.

For most of us, the world of Newton is the world of “reality”; but is this really the case? Is the “truth” revealed by our mathematical calculations the only possible “truth” and is it the “ultimate truth”, what we sometimes call “objective truth”?

Please do not misunderstand that what is being proposed here is a “subjective” idea of truth. This is not the case. Fantasies are indeed subjective; truth is not. And imagination as a way of knowing is not the generation of fantasies; it is, in a way, the generation of truth brought about through truth’s apprehension in the human soul; the logos gives and the soul responds whether that logos is a “knowledge framework” or a god. Imagination as a way of knowing is the artist or poet or scientist as “mid-wife” (the Greek philosopher, Socrates, saw himself as a ‘midwife’) assisting and nurturing the birth of the truth that had been given. Blake called this nurturing and abetting of the truth “the Divine Humanity”.


Blake’s conception of the Divine Humanity arose out of a conviction that “man is divine because he participates in the life of God through the faculty of the imagination.” The imagination is the realm of supreme reality in which the divine-human theosis is actualized. Theosis or deification is a transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God.  According to Eastern Christian teaching, theosis is very much the purpose of human life.

When the imagination is viewed as a generator of fantasies, the imagination has no ground upon which to stand except that of “the box” of rationalism, and this “box” or conception of the logos is prior to the fantasies that emerge from within it. The literary genre of science fiction is an example of this use of fantasy, and this use of fantasy accounts for much of what we consider the imagination to be.

Newton’s Sleep: The Single Vision

“Now I a fourfold vision see/ And a fourfold vision is given to me/ Tis fourfold in my supreme delight/ And three fold in soft Beulahs night/ And twofold Always. May God us keep/ From Single vision & Newtons sleep.”— Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake (1956)

How does the imagination as a way of knowing reflect the poetizing of a poet like Blake and the thinking of a thinker? Imagination may be said to be the way of knowing that is the mediation that opens up the realms in the areas of knowledge and the questioning that occurs in those realms or domains. It provides the jointedness or relatedness between the human being and the world around and within him, and it can be a dominant way of knowing in the open region of our personal and shared knowledge.

The world of Newton emphasizes reason as a way of knowing. This “reason” has come to us in the form of judgment in our assertions about the way things are. It is the correspondence theory of truth. We have inherited, in our shared knowledge, the belief that “judgment is the seat of truth”. This is because we are able to hear. Our judgments arise from language as a way of knowing: the book is on the table; 1+1= 2; etc. As we have said elsewhere, language is more than words. It can be numbers, images, words, symbols (such as the mathematical equation above), signs or anything that establishes a relationship or a relation between ourselves and what is outside ourselves.

It is through language as logos that we establish our relationship with our world. Logos means “relation” and “a gathering together”, a “laying down” and the establishment of a “ground” or a foundation. It is the logos that “gathers together” our individual sense perceptions, our seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and allows us to arrive at the word that identifies something as the thing it is for us. It is the logos that establishes and “grounds” our concepts, our “first principles” and, thus, determines the direction of our further thinking.

Logos became translated as ratio by the Latins and from this translation came our “reason” or “rationality” as a way of knowing and as assertion about the nature of things. This understanding has come to dominate our relation to the world since, within it, there was our understanding of what the essence of things are and our understanding of what we are as human beings, the animal rationale or the rational animal.

With the arrival and within the tradition of Christianity, with its emphasis on the salvation of the “soul” and the rejection of the material world, came the final separation of “soul” from the body and from the corporeal or material world; and from this separation came the development of the subject/object distinction. Blake’s rejection of Newton’s “single vision” is that in Newton’s vision, objects cease to be objects or to become objects and become, rather, abstract mathematical constructions of, and within, the mind. The “ob-“or the “against” towards which the mind in its activity is the “jacio” or “the thrown forward” is no longer present. The “ob-“, the outside world, becomes a shadow, an abstraction. This relation is much more complex than what is presented here, but to go into it in depth would take us too further afield from that which we wish to discuss here and one can find a greater depth of discussion in Reason as a way of knowing and in the Arts as an Area of Knowledge.

Blake’s Rejection of Logos as Reason

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe/ And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire/ Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth/ In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works/ Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic/ Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which/ Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.” (Jerusalem 15.14–20, E159)

The overcoming of the subject/object distinction was the motivation for all of Blake’s efforts in his lifetime. For Blake, the understanding of logos as “the Word” became his definition of the imagination. It is through words that we establish our concepts and our understanding of the concepts or universals that are given to us. From these universals we come to sight or bring to sight all the particulars that exist in the external reality that we call the Being of our world.

For Blake, the Word is Christ (Gospel of John I.i.) but this concept of the Word takes on many more meanings within the work of Blake, not the least of which is his inclusion of Christ as the Being of our world both in the corporeal and spiritual sense (“The Lamb slain from the foundation of the World” Rev. 13:8) . (Note: If one changes the tense of the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, one can capture the essential meaning of Blake’s efforts and work as a whole: “Firstly, there is the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) is with God and the Word (Logos) is God. The Logos is, first, with God. All things come into Being through Him (the Logos), and apart from Him, nothing can come into Being that has come into Being. In the Logos is life, and the Life is the light of humanity”). For Blake, the imagination is human existence or the Life itself.

For Blake, the human soul united with the logos understood as the divine imagination comes to see the world as it is: it is the logos that reveals the reality of the world; and for Blake, like those he rejected such as Aristotle, Bacon, Locke and Newton, the reality of the world rests in the intellect. But the things of the world as we currently perceive them through the intellect in the work of Newton, Locke and Aristotle are but shadows to Blake. There is a great difference from Blake’s understanding of the intellect and that which has traditionally come down to us; so what is the difference in this understanding of the intellect?

The artist and poet William Blake rejected the understanding of the logos as merely reason only. With the emphasis of the logos understood as reason, too much weight was given to the mind or intellect and too much stress was placed on reason, understood as a certain type of reason. With the view of truth as revealed through reason understood as “logic”, Blake felt that the seeing or viewing of the god (Christ) and the looking back upon the god by human beings was withdrawn from the world. What replaced it came to be understood as Law, whether religious laws or scientific laws or mathematical laws. No longer could the living God be sighted, he felt, and it required a great ‘cleansing of the doors of perception’ in order for human beings to see the world of the God once again.

Blake’s understanding occurred early in his life, and this understanding never changed throughout the whole of Blake’s life. His rejection of logos as reason provided the foundation and grounding for his view of reality, the role of the imagination in that reality, and of his view of the world itself for the rest of his life. He saw, as no one else did, the consequences of the type of rationality that began with Aristotle in his Analytics as well as its revelation and extrapolation in the rest of the corpus of Aristotle’s works. How this rationalism became understood through the filtering influence of traditional Christianity in Medieval times and was inherited by Bacon, Locke and Newton became, for Blake, the figure of Urizen in his art and poetry. In the opening hymn of his book Milton, the well-known “dark Satanic Mills” are not merely the enormous mills of the Industrial Revolution as they are traditionally interpreted. They are the inevitable outcomes of the thinking and seeing that finds its roots in Aristotle’s Analytics. (Note: In his text “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” begun in 1789 and completed in 1790, Blake describes the world that results from viewing the logos as Reason:

“Here, said I! is your lot, in this space, if space it may be call’d. Soon we saw the stable and the church, & I took him to the altar and open’d the Bible, and lo! it was a deep pit, into which I descended driving the Angel before me; soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we enter’d; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, & all of that species, chain’d by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains; however I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect, first coupled with & then devour’d, by plucking off first one limb and then another till the body was left a helpless trunk; this after grinning & kissing it with seeming fondness they devour’d too; and here & there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off of his own tail; as the stench terribly annoy’d us both we went into the mill, & I in my hand brought the skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle’s Analytics. So the Angel said: thy phantasy has imposed upon me & thou oughtest to be ashamed. I answer’d: we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.”

It is in the Analytics that Aristotle makes explicit the correspondence theory of truth through syllogisms and mathematics. Notice the irony that it is not the Angel that, like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, leads the poet down into the depths of Hell, but it is the poet Blake who “drives the Angel before”. It is Blake who is the guide, not the Angel.

Blake Book of UrizenIf we look at the painting of Urizen provided here, we can see the figure of an old man (Blake’s Urizen or, perhaps, King Jehovah, or Nobodaddy) sitting on top of a book which is under his foot which, like our own feet, provides the contact with the “grounding” or the “ground”, while he writes into two books behind him which have the shape of an altar. The two books could be the Old and New Testaments of the Bible or they could be the works of Newton and of John Locke, or they could be a combination of both: the arts and sciences. In Urizen’s right hand is a quill; and in his left, a pen. Tears flow from his eyes. The movement in the painting is from our left to right and the colors grow darker as they move to the right. Behind the figure of Urizen are two stones which have the traditional appearance of the Ten Commandments, the Laws. The two stones serve as a door or a gate barring the way behind them or providing an entrance. For Blake, this would be our “shared knowledge”. It is the limitations placed on the imagination by the use of reason in what we have inherited from our past in reason’s interpretation of what reality is. It is captured in our second tier questioning beginning “To what extent…”, questions that ask us to reason and compare.

For Blake, it is the Divine Imagination which originates the movement or the action of knowing and making, not the artist or poet. The Divine Imagination is the logos which, through intuition (not understood as “instinctive feeling” but as an a priori givenness of time and space, of Being i.e. ordinary perception), is grasped and then comes to stand and is preserved in the ‘work’ that is the poem or the painting. The poet or artist is not primary in this process for Blake. The poet or artist actively/ receptively receives the “visions” that are given to her by the Divine Imagination, the logos, and these visions, through the artist’s techniques and skills are given birth or brought to presence in the works that are the result of the visions. A poet or artist has the choice to either receive the visions or ignore them. These visions are not to be understood as abstractions, but are the realities (the “whatness” or the essence) of the things that are. The visions are, in themselves, the real beings while the corporeality of the material world is but ‘shadows’.

Modern science deals with formulas and abstractions. It denies this intuitive “looking” and receiving of the imagination. (Note: Blake  in his poem Jerusalem states: “And this is the manner of the Sons of Albion in their strength/ They take the Two Contraries which are call’d Qualities, with which/ Every Substance is clothed, they name them Good and Evil/ From them they make an Abstract, which is a Negation/ Not only of the Substance from which it is derived/ A murderer of its own Body: but also a murderer/ Of every Divine Member: it is the Reasoning Power/ An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing/ This is the Spectre of Man; the Holy Reasoning Power/ And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation”  Blake provides us with an insight into the nihilism which is at the heart of modern rationalism here.)

For Blake, the Ideas of the imagination are not abstractions; they are beings, realities that must be apprehended, seen in the souls and minds of human beings. Modern science, on the other hand, must have recourse to mathematics as its logos because, as is seen in Blake’s painting of Newton, mathematics serves a viewing that sees nature as a collection of disposables. If we as human beings see nature as having no end or purpose in and of itself then the scientist’s (Newton’s) recourse to mathematics, to formulas, to the calculation and quantification of things as matter in motion necessarily abstracts from the things as they really are and does not allow those things to stand as ‘objects’ in their own right. Science can never renounce this gathering or understanding of the world as calculable because the calculations provide a view of nature that is secure in its predictability; but as is seen in the painting of Newton, this predictability of nature is at the cost of ignorance of nature itself. It is our mastering, commandeering disposition towards the things that are that determines what their being is; and what the things are is determined by our own reasoning or what we have come to understand as the “design” or “framing” of our own reasoning (“What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry”—Blake, “The Tyger”).

Modern physics provides a picture of nature that is coherent in that its picture of nature is dependable, predictable and calculable. Modern science constrains nature to present itself in a certain way, frames it, so that it will respond to the questions that arise from a specific design or understanding of reason (logos), as the philosopher Kant, a contemporary of Blake’s, notes. Blake (as does Plato before him because both have an understanding of the Ideas) would reject Kant’s view that ‘reason’ is higher than understanding. Science unlocks nature’s secrets by creating its own phenomenon (light observed through a cloud chamber, for instance) and by recording the results through its own measuring instruments which of themselves produce the contents that science is meant to see. As the scientist Werner Heisenberg has noted, science has abandoned its goal of knowing the contents or things of nature as such in favor of gaining knowledge of the order of the contents or things, the frame in which the contents or things appear. Science records which contents will regularly appear together and which will succeed one another whether in physics, chemistry or biology. The predictability of the results is key and this predictability must be rendered in the logos of mathematical reasoning.

Science is able to guarantee the order of appearances but can claim no insight into exactly what is appearing. The connections in the causality of modern science are customary ones, not essential ones because modern science can claim no knowledge of the “essence”, and would indeed claim that there is no such thing as the “essence” of some thing. Heisenberg’s own indeterminacy principle is the realization of this. That this crisis for science goes unnoticed by many scientists indicates that they themselves are more “fundamentalist” in their faith than the religious fanatics that some of them rail against. Science knows only the results of the causality it examines and it knows these results with certainty, but it has no understanding of what is causally connected or what that causal connection is or might be. Science as a predicate of the subject technology is a manifestation of technology as the highest form of will to power and is one of many possible ways of viewing the world and manifesting this will to power.

Today’s scientists can be compared to the prisoners in Plato’s cave. If we will recall, the prisoners in Plato’s cave have been in their situation since childhood and they are ignorant of the nature of that which they see. They are unaware that the shadows which they are seeing are shadows. The cave-dwellers develop, as is said in Republic 516:  “the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were sharpest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of the shadows went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to their future appearances”, or the predictability of the shadows that would appear. These prisoners are those who are basically content with their condition.  Plato’s allegory appears to be prescient with regard to the “Nobel Prize-itis” that grips many in today’s scientific community.

That the prisoners would do violence to anyone who would challenge their understanding of their shadow reality is but another example of Plato’s prescience. This “violence”, which sometimes cloaks itself under the banner of “free speech”, is the proneness of the dispositions of those who claim to be in possession of the truth even if it is the claim that there is no truth. The “violence” that is done to nature in our imposing on nature to give an account for its being the way it is, is done in our “posing” towards nature. It is in this “posing” towards nature that the determination that nature will show itself as “dis-posable”: nature is so “posed” as to be “dis-posable”, and nature shows itself as such. This viewing of nature is then trans-posed into how we relate to each other as human beings when we see each other as “resources” or “disposables”.

We call the sciences of today the “positive” sciences: Positive > ponere > to “posit”, “lay”; positurn > “what has been laid down”, what already lies there. Positive sciences are those sciences that deal with what already lies there as a result of the “posing”. Numbers are already there, spatial relations exist, nature is at hand, language is present, and so is the literature that is “re-searched”. All this is positurn and it is what is laid down beforehand, our “shared knowledge”.

The mastery of the shadows is all that counts to the cave dwellers; it is what must be known in order to be called “qualified”. The resignation of today’s scientists appears to correspond to the contentment of the prisoners in Plato’s cave. The lack of insight or understanding into nature, the object of mastery, is compensated for by the dependability and predictability of the results that can be applied in order to make nature disposable to human ends. Not only Plato but also Blake was prescient to these ultimate consequences of seeing nature as a “shadow” and as “disposable”.

Blake in “There is no Natural Religion” provides the following insights into the logos as ratio.

  • Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
  • The bounded is loathed by its possessor. the same dull round, even of the universe, would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
  • If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.

Blake continues:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

What Blake is saying here is that what we understand as “essence” is not what is grasped by the science of Newton or modern science. The “essence” will change once we know something more, something new, when a new paradigm shift comes about. Historically, it was believed that reason grasped “essences” in the “looking” of the theory, but for Blake, this is not the case. Our framing ratiocination of nature is, in fact, “loathed” by us for it is merely an eternal recurrence of the same, a “mill with complicated wheels”, the nihilism that realizes itself in the viewing of nature as disposable. Blake’s writings are filled with his rage against the nihilism that is the modern sciences.

For Aristotle, the end of sophia is the ‘looking’ which is knowledge of the first things (the “essences”) and of the whole. It has those things which do not change as its theme, the necessary, the essences of the things, so that for Aristotle the highest end is the Being or existence of the theoretical man, the scientific man. This Being, end for man, has priority over the practical man, practical action. It is important to note that this view required Aristotle to coin the term the “theoretikos”: the theoretical man, since it was not a view present in Greek philosophy prior to Aristotle. In Aristotle, the bios theoretikos replaces the bios philosophos as the highest disposition of human being. The life of theory, the “seeing” for itself as an end in itself, is given a higher priority than the “love” or “friendship” (philo), the logos, the relation with that wisdom that is found in the two-way “looking” and the “looking back” that is the understanding of the philosopher. This removal of the love for wisdom and this love of wisdom is, or was, the first step in the concealment or withdrawal of the gods and the withdrawal of the Good, for Aristotle’s bios theoretikos was a denial of that gulf which separates the necessary from the Good. It led to the life absorbed in abstractions rather than the concrete reality of human existence.

Reason and the Imagination in Blake

“Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

“The eye altering, alters all”.

Blake Los SpectreBlake’s life and work was a reaction to the traditional views of rationality as understood in the mathematical sciences, and he sought for some way of bringing the contraries of imagination and reason together into one imaginative figure who could provide his understanding of what both the imagination and reason are. This figure became the mythic or daemonic character of Los for Blake, an anagram of Sol or the Sun. (By daemonic I do not mean “demon” or what is commonly associated with that word, but rather the daemonic in its original sense as an intermediary between the world as we experience it and the world of the Divine Imagination or the spiritual world, the world of essences. The angels, too, are daemons). The use of anagrams in Blake implies a “mirror image” of things or a ‘fearful symmetry’ of things, if you like. Through the figure of Los, Blake’s view of the imagination, art, poetry and truth came together and determined all of his artistic efforts and all of his poetry.

For Blake, poetry and philosophy are one and emanate from the Divine Imagination. This attempt to hold together the poetry of the Word and the techne of the “know how” of artistic making and creativity (technology) was something Blake struggled with for most of his life for both are of a kindred essence (Los and Urizen are of a kindred essence: the logos). This struggle can be seen most clearly in his poem “The Tyger” which is not a poem about the conflict of good and evil (as it is traditionally understood), but is a poem about the conflict of ‘knowing’ (the first two stanzas), ‘making’ (the second two stanzas), and the daring to find and frame the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the two (the final two stanzas). In Blake’s poetry and art, “The Book of Los” is in fearful symmetry with “The Book of Urizen” as both, in a way, mirror each other. Blake’s use of capitalization indicates the “essence” of something prior to its “fall” into the material universe, so the “immortal hand or eye” of the maker of the “Tyger” is the fallen Los depicted in “The Book of Los”, the Los overwhelmed by consciousness of self as ‘maker’ and by the ‘experimentation’ of ‘making’ that is driven by the looking and the seeing that is technology.

As an anagram of Sol or the sun, Los is associated with the traditional understanding of light as the revealer of truth. The Sun as a representation of light becomes Reason or Intellect as revealer of truth and is primarily given in the figure of the Greek god Apollo who is Urizen in Blake’s work. Los and Urizen are continually in conflict in Blake’s work, but they are also bound to each other through this conflict.

Reason has always been understood as a ‘revealer’ of the things that are hidden. For Blake, coming as he does from within the Christian tradition, Reason is associated with Lucifer, who is also associated with light, for Lucifer’s name derives from both the Old English and from the Latin and means the ‘light-bringing, morning star’, from luxluc- ‘light’ + -fer ‘bearing’. Lucifer is by association the ‘son of the morning’ (Isa. 14:12), believed by Christian interpreters to be a reference to Satan. In Blake’s work, both Christ and Lucifer are united as contraries in a binary relationship in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, a poem written at the beginning of Blake’s career as a poet and artist. Los becomes a Christ-figure in his later poem “Jerusalem”.

For Blake, the human soul is composed of four parts: Humanity, Emanation, Spectre and Shadow. In Blake’s painting above, we see Los dealing with his Spectre, which was for Blake Reason as it was and is traditionally understood. Spectre’s wings are black and he has his hands to his ears. He does not wish, or cannot wish, to hear. Spectre is much like the prisoners in Plato’s cave. Spectre is associated with the Shadow in Blake. Shadow, in Blake’s mythology, is associated with everything that blocks imaginative redemption. Our seeing of the world through our understanding of reason blocks the “cleansing of the doors of perception” that Blake sees as necessary to humanity’s redemption, the ‘eye altering’ which removes delusions. Redemption here is not to be understood as “redemption from” sin as it is traditionally understood, but redemption to the full essence of our humanity and to the things of the world as they truly are.

For Blake, “The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated/ From Imagination. and closing itself as in steel. in a Ratio/ Of the Things of Memory. It thence frames Laws & Moralities/ To destroy Imagination! the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars”. (J 74: 11-14)

The Difficulty of Classifying Blake within the Tradition: Art as Aesthetics

“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create.”

It is difficult to speak of the imagination as a way of knowing without relating it to the arts in general. Our understanding of art is as “aesthetics”. Aesthetics today is, emphatically, the philosophy of art. Art is understood today in aesthetic terms, humanistic (humanism) terms, and we examine and explore art’s effects on human sense experience (aesthesis). We believe that Art is given to us in the worlds we inhabit for the sake of deepening our experiences. “We” are the centre of this world view and understanding of art. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is an assertion to which one will get an almost universal response in the affirmative. This humanistic view and aesthetic approach to art is the flowering of the technological outlook of art where art is viewed as a “disposable”. (Note:  See Blake’s Preface to Milton: “Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[i]onable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying.”) The artists among us place artworks at our disposal, and we experience their creations for precisely what we can get out of them. Blake’s art, however, went in the opposite direction.

This view of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is not how or what Blake viewed as beauty in art. For Blake, art is the bringing forth of the true into the beautiful. For the Greeks, this was called techne. Beauty is not a “subjective” response to art in our human beholding as it was not for Blake and the Greeks. Aesthetics arises when the Divine Imagination is supplanted and overcome by human subjectivity.

The original Greek attitude to art was not a matter of aesthetics. They did not surround themselves with their art for “subjective reasons” or to elevate their experiences. The Greeks did not “value” art for that which it brings “in return”: art was not something that brought returns. We call this return “appreciation” of art. Art had a higher function or purpose than human creativity or “appreciation”, or human refinement or to make humans more “cultured”. For the Greeks, the attitude toward art was one of “piety”.

An examination of the piety of Greek theatre will quickly illustrate this: they were not the beholders but the beheld. The word “theatre” means “the seeing place”, a place one goes to not to behold, but to be beheld; and it is not just by others that one is beheld but by the god in the two way looking that is “theo” and “horao”.

If the purpose of art is simply for art to be appreciated then art is debased; the bringing of art down to the subjective level, as is done in the aesthetic view of art, debases art. In the aesthetic view of art, we see art as an expression of culture. Art programs are instituted in the schools to “enrich” the culture; art museums are considered the containers of our “culture”. Life without art is seen as mere bestiality.

In the aesthetic view of art, what is highlighted is the artistic ability or creativity of the individual artist. An artist’s skill, dexterity, originality or ingenuity is what is focused upon. This techne of the artist or of a human being, the subject, the human genius, was not the source of art for the Greeks, nor for Blake. The soul of the poet or artist was assimilated in the Poetic Genius or the Divine Imagination, the theosis; the logos was given forth and its shining was beheld in visions (inspiration). This beholding of the artist led to the bringing forth of the work, through the artist’s techne, into the sensuous or material realm. Artworks were not, principally, human creations; but, of course, humans have to participate in the bringing forth of truth into beauty through their techne. But their role is secondary.

Aesthetics is the view of art that only relates art to humanity; it is the flourishing of that growth that we call humanism. With the withdrawal of the gods, humanity comes to supplant and fill the vacuum left by them and their absence. One may find this filling of the vacuum in the works of a modern playwright like Arthur Miller. The role or place that was once held by the gods in the works of the Greek tragedians and Shakespeare is supplanted by the role or place of the social or society in the playwright Miller’s work. In Platonic terminology, it becomes worship of the Great Beast.

Blake’s work was an attempt to overcome this vacuum, what he called “Newton’s sleep”, “the single vision”. This “single vision” of the Newtonian sleep is a destiny for modern human beings for in the “single vision”, a kind of truth is revealed which determines what we are and what we think the world is outside of ourselves. Our misunderstanding and thoughtlessness towards this destiny, this mistaking of our “single vision” as the only vision and disregarding the possibility of seeing with a “whole” vision in Blake’s sense, creates “blindness” in all the actions that are determined from this prior manner of “seeing”. Our pride in the accomplishments and achievements of our technology and sciences is Oedipus’ pride in resolving the riddle of the Sphinx: he does so and is able to do so because he is “destined” to do so. This pride “blinds” him to who he really is, to his essence, and the price for this blindness is his sight.

For ourselves, we pose as “masters of the earth”, but our self-blindness makes us slaves to the institutions that we have constructed from our “disposable” viewing. The illusion spreads that everything human beings encounter exists only insofar as it is their construct and that everywhere human beings only encounter themselves. The great physicist Heisenberg has pointed out that reality must present itself to human beings in this way in our modern age. If we are heedless of our essence and misconstrue ourselves as the authors of the disposables around us, including nature, then we will come to see all things as entirely human constructs. Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle states that we have no access to an independent nature; nature is an abstract reduced to scientific formulas of our own doing and making. What exactly the formulas apply to is unknown to us. All things, both the natural ones and the man-made ones, are our own creations; they are the mirrors in which we see ourselves and only ourselves. We are Newton sitting upon a rock at the bottom of the sea.

For Blake, we have lost sight of who and what we really are as human beings as we move forward in our Newtonian sleep; and certainly this is the case much more now than 200 years ago when Blake first gained this insight into human existence. Or as Blake says:

God Appears & God is Light/To those poor Souls who dwell in Night;/ But does a Human Form Display/ To those who Dwell in Realms of day. (“Auguries of Innocence”)

Blake’s work is grounded in the view of art as an ontology, a way of being in the world, rather than a humanism which is a metaphysical grounding of human being and its subsequent consequence, the aesthetic view of art. Blake’s is a mythopoeic art rather than a representational art. It is an art where poetry and philosophy are one, and where reason and the imagination are one.

Exactly where Blake belongs in the canon of art and in the history of art has been a problem for the classifiers of art when they try to put Blake somewhere in the traditional schools of art. This should not come as a surprise since the classification of art and art history arose simultaneously with Cartesianism, but it has its roots in Aristotle’s categories which are the application of the logos to beings, what can be said about things. Blake’s whole enterprise was to overcome the view of art that arose with the Cartesian separation of the “subjective/objective” worlds and the worlds of human making which he had inherited (‘the Satanic mills’, a reference not only to industrialization which Blake saw all about him, but also to the thinking and seeing which brought that ‘Satanic’ world view about).

Imagination and Love

“The Imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself/ Affection or Love becomes a state when divided from imagination.”– Blake, “Milton”

“…the milk of the joy of eternity must be more substantially present, if the ravages of fate are to be looked on, and one is not to be turned to stone.”– George Grant, The George Grant Reader, p. 368

For Blake, the Self is the innate selfishness with which we are born; it is opposed to our central Humanity or our “essence”, “what we are fitted for” as human beings. It appears in his paintings as a polypus or jellyfish.  The Polypus is organized and motivated by materialism and traditional religion (Mil: 34: 24-31). In Blake, assimilation and communication in and through the logos creates the human body and prevents it from being merely formless  jelly or the human being of “Mortal & Vegetable” birth; in other words, the logos is what makes us truly human and allows us to reach beyond ourselves as merely “bodies”.

As our Self develops, it becomes the Spectre (J 33:19) and is one’s Satan (Mil 14:50). The Self is protean in its development and appearances (J 17-24), but its chief appearance in Blake’s art is as a jellyfish or squid (Polypus), such as is seen in the painting of Newton. For Blake, human beings are enjoined by “invisible hatreds” from which they form the “worldly society”, which is the opposite of his conception of the Brotherhood of Man. They are represented by the figure of Orc: the hatred men bear each other. In the painting above, the child Orc is seen with his parents Enitharmon and Los, and it is quite clear that the relationship between Orc and Enitharmon is one with Oedipal complexities. For Blake, revolution is the opium of the masses and it is from the spirit of Orc. In his poems America and Europe, Blake looked at the outcomes of those revolutions, the American and French Revolutions, and saw the turning wheels to be those of oppression and tyranny. Mass political movements are not the solution to man’s ills, according to Blake. We must all individually be the change we wish to see in the world and this change must first come through knowledge of ourselves which can only come about through the ‘cleansing of the doors of perception’.

Blake unites the imagination with human affection and love and sees these as “human existence” itself, a way of being in the world for human beings that is both temporal and atemporal. A “state”, understood as a noun, is the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time. As a verb, to state is to make an assertion about something, about its being what it is. “State”, both as noun and verb, are related to logos and are indicators of representational thinking. Representational thinking is contrary to love and imagination.

How are we to understand love and the imagination as the logos that is contrary to representational thought? “Love” is attention to otherness, receptivity to otherness, and consent to otherness whether that “other” be other human beings, nature, or Being itself. Such an account of love might sound somewhat abstract until it is given content through all the occasions of life, from elementary human relations to the love of the truth of Being itself. The attention and receptivity to otherness is not a passive acceptance. When we love other human beings, we know those human beings because we have paid attention to them, have received something of what they are, and consented to what they are as good.

Our paying attention is not a passive onlooking; it is an active loving which nurtures and abets the other as is the case in all true friendships. True attention to otherness is the freedom and dignity of human being; it is what we are fitted for.  Love is only love in so far as it has passed through the flesh by means of actions, movements, attitudes which correspond to it as an active giving of itself (Weil). If this has not happened, it is not love, but a phantasy in which we pamper ourselves. We are all capable of this attention: when I am absorbed in watching a football match and I hear the cries of my child, I attend to my child and forget myself and my own pleasures. Such attention and giving is elementary and easy. Such attention requires a thoughtful, imaginative choice and response. But most of life’s requirements for our attentiveness to otherness are, obviously, not as easy nor as simple as this example. Love that is a denial of the Self in our day-to-day being in the world is a redemption that is not cheaply bought.

The Imagination in other Traditions

What is said about the imagination in other traditions? “The Sufi tradition of Islam offers an analogue of imagination in the concept of barzakh, referring to “the whole intermediate realm between the spiritual and the corporeal.” Since this world of imagination is “closer to the World of Light” than the corporeal world (Chittick, p. 14), it can give valid knowledge of higher reality.

In the Buddhist tradition there is no systematic view of imagination; the Sanskrit word for it is prtibha (“poetic genius”), but it is not given much emphasis in Buddhist thought.

Hinduism, on the other hand, offers in the Vedic tradition a highly developed view of imagination as both the transcendent power by which the gods create and sustain the harmony of the universe, and the human faculty by which the human artist, priest, or sage recognizes and celebrates this harmony. It is, in short, the imagination that “joins the human spirit with ultimate reality itself” (Mahoney, p. 2). ( Imagination – Non-western Traditions – World, Human, Harmony, and Reality – JRank Articles

One can see here that Blake’s concept of the imagination closely resembles that of the Sufi and Vedanta traditions.

There is no Natural Religion



The Argument. Man has no notion of moral fitness but from Education. Naturally he is only a natural organ subject to Sense.

  • Man cannot naturally perceive but through his natural or bodily organs.
  • Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perceiv’d.
  • From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.
  • None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions.
  • Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions; none can desire what he has not perceiv’d.
  • The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by anything but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.


  • Man’s perceptions are not bound by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.
  • Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.
  • [This proposition is missing.]
  • The bounded is loathed by its possessor. the same dull round, even of the universe, would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.
  • If the many become the same as the few when possess’d, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
  • If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
  • The desire of Man being infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.
He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.

Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.  


In Blake, the imagination is the essence of both God and Human Being; the two are indistinguishable. “The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination; that is, God Himself, the Divine Body, Jesus: we are his Members.” (Laocoon, K. 776) “Man is all Imagination. God is man and exists in us & we in him.” (On Berkeley, K 775) For Blake, the logos exists as the relationship between two unequal members, a friendship among unequals, the relation between the Divine and the Mortal.

Imagination is the “Divine Humanity” (Jerusalem 20:19); imagination is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus (the Word made flesh). (Milton 5:3; Jerusalem 5:58, 24:23, 60:57, 74:13; Laocoon K776) It is the gift of the Holy Ghost (“the gift of tongues”); it is the Holy Ghost himself.

For Blake, the imagination is existence: Being: “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination”. (Jerusalem 9:25) “All Animals & Vegetations, the Earth & Heaven are contained in the All Glorious Imagination”. (Jerusalem 19:10) “In your own Bosom you bear your Heaven and Earth & all you behold; tho’ it appears without, it is within, in your Imagination, of which the World of Mortality is but a Shadow.” (Jerusalem 71:19)

The Imagination is the basis of all art. “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination: The Divine Vision (On Wordsworth, K782). “Nature has no Outline, but Imagination has: Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has. Nature has no Supernatural & dissolves: Imagination is Eternity”.

In the creative act, the Imagination is the completest liberty of the spirit. “Imagination is surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration, who in the aggregate are called Jerusalem”. “I know of no other Christianity and no other Gospel than the liberty of both body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination” (Jerusalem 79). It is the exploring “inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.” (Jerusalem 5:19)

“Abstract Philosophy” (metaphysics) is the enemy of the Imagination (Jerusalem 5:58; 70:19; 74:26) and is the Reasoning Spectre (Jerusalem 36:24; 74:7; 11). The Daughters of Memory (tradition, “shared knowledge”) are contrasted with the Daughters of Inspiration: “Imagination has nothing to do with memory”.

The Self or Selfhood: For Blake, the Self is the innate selfishness with which we are born; it is opposed to our central Humanity or our “essence”, what we are fitted for as human beings. As our self develops, it becomes the Spectre (Jerusalem 33:19) and is one’s Satan (Milton 14:30). It is protean in its development and appearances (Jerusalem 17-24), but its chief appearance is as a jellyfish or squid, such as is seen in the painting of Newton. For Blake, human beings are enjoined by “invisible hatreds” and they form the “worldly society” which is the opposite to his conception of the Brotherhood of Man. They are represented by the figure of Orc: the hatred men bear each other.

The polypus or the Self is organized and motivated by materialism and traditional religion (Milton 34: 24-31). In Blake, assimilation and communication in and through the logos creates the Human body and prevents it from being merely formless jelly or a man of “Mortal & Vegetable” birth such as a human being is when dominated by materialism and traditional religion.

For Blake, the Spectre is “the Great Selfhood Satan, Worship’d as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth” (Jerusalem 33: 17-34). “The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated/ from Imagination and closing itself as in steel in a Ratio of Things of Memory/ It thence frames Laws and Moralities to destroy Imagination! The Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars” (Jerusalem 74:11-14).


[1] If one changes the tense of the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, one can capture the essential meaning of Blake’s efforts and work as a whole: “Firstly, there is the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) is with God and the Word (Logos) is God. The Logos is, first, with God. All things come into Being through Him (the Logos), and apart from Him, nothing can come into Being that has come into Being. In the Logos is life, and the Life is the light of humanity”. For Blake, the imagination is human existence or the Life itself.

[2] In his text “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” begun in 1789 and completed in 1790, Blake describes the world that results from viewing the logos as Reason:

“Here, said I! is your lot, in this space, if space it may be call’d. Soon we saw the stable and the church, & I took him to the altar and open’d the Bible, and lo! it was a deep pit, into which I descended driving the Angel before me; soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we enter’d; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, & all of that species, chain’d by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but witheld by the shortness of their chains; however I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect, first coupled with & then devour’d, by plucking off first one limb and then another till the body was left a helpless trunk; this after grinning & kissing it with seeming fondness they devour’d too; and here & there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off of his own tail; as the stench terribly annoy’d us both we went into the mill, & I in my hand brought the skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle’s Analytics.

So the Angel said: thy phantasy has imposed upon me & thou oughtest to be ashamed.

I answer’d: we impose on one another, & it is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.”

It is in the Analytics that Aristotle makes explicit the correspondence theory of truth through syllogisms and mathematics. Notice the irony that it is not the Angel that, like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, leads the poet down into the depths of Hell, but it is the poet Blake who “drives the Angel before”. It is Blake who is the guide, not the Angel.

[3] Blake  in his poem Jerusalem states: “And this is the manner of the Sons of Albion in their strength/ They take the Two Contraries which are call’d Qualities, with which/ Every Substance is clothed, they name them Good and Evil/ From them they make an Abstract, which is a Negation/ Not only of the Substance from which it is derived/ A murderer of its own Body: but also a murderer/ Of every Divine Member: it is the Reasoning Power/ An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing/ This is the Spectre of Man; the Holy Reasoning Power/ And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation”

[4] See Blake’s Preface to Milton:

“Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[i]onable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying.”

[5] Imagination – Non-western Traditions – World, Human, Harmony, and Reality – JRank Articles

OT 4: Knowledge and Religion: Introduction

Knowledge and Religion: Introduction

Technology and Justice:

Friedrich Nietzsche

“Every age has its own divine type of naïveté for whose invention other ages may envy it—and how much naiveté, venerable, childlike, and boundlessly clumsy naïveté lies in the scholar’s faith in his superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the unsuspecting simple certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as an inferior and lower type that he has outgrown, leaving it behind, beneath him—him, that presumptuous little dwarf and rabble man, the assiduous and speedy head- and handiworker of “ideas”, of “modern ideas”!—Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (Kaufmann trans. #58)


“….a proof for the existence of God can be constructed by means of the most rigorous formal logic and yet prove nothing, since a god who must permit his existence to be proved in the first place is ultimately a very ungodly god. The best such proofs of existence can yield is blasphemy.”—Heidegger, Nietzsche “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same”, trans. D. F. Krell p. 106

Questions:  If knowledge is a map, what is the territory that religion represents?
What is the value of thinking about questions to which there are no definite
answers? Does religion try to resolve problems that other areas can’t resolve? Is the point of knowledge to produce meaning and purpose in our lives? Is certainty any more or less attainable in religion than it is in the arts or human sciences? To what extent do scientific developments have the power to influence thinking about religion? Is faith a prerequisite for religious knowledge?

Before beginning this introduction to “Knowledge and Religion”, we must have a short discussion of what a “system” is and from where it derives.

Our two recent AOKs are called “Religious Knowledge Systems” and “Indigenous Knowledge Systems”. What is called a “system” originates and depends on the mathematical projection and the quest for certainty that arose in the 17th century in Europe, primarily through the French philosopher Rene Déscartes. A projection or a system is only possible in the wake of the dominance of (in the wide sense) mathematical thinking: mathematics understood in its original Greek sense as what can be learned and what can be taught according to the new discoveries of mathematics and science.  This mathematical thinking has been called technology in other writings on this website and it is a “way of knowing”, and this way of knowing or “seeing” was prior to its inception in the 17th century. A thinking that stands outside this mathematical-technological realm and the corresponding definitions of truth as certainty (the correspondence and coherence theories of truth) that is maintained within this mathematical-technological realm is thus essentially lacking in what can be called a “system”, and is thus considered un-systematic. The French philosopher Rousseau, for example, is criticized for his “unsystematic” thinking.

The Greeks had no system as we understand a “system”. We understand a system in the sense of a structure or plan projected and executed as a unity and embracing all essential questions and matters uniformly. We view the various adherents of the “religious knowledge systems” of the world’s great religions as human beings who believe, have faith, that they are in possession of the truth and that this possession and its interpretation determines their thought and the actions resulting from the thinking. This possession of truth can be held ‘fundamentally’ or ‘liberally’ in terms of its interpretations by those who adhere to the religion in question. The most “fundamental” religion is the belief in science and its results as a projection of the real.

This “systematic” approach to thinking, for instance, is nowhere to be found in Plato. The Platonic Socrates ‘knows that he knows nothing’. In Plato, the most varied questions are posed from different starting-points and on different levels. Everything is gathered together in the guiding question of philosophy: the essence and the how of what we think beings or things are including ourselves as human beings. When applied to Religious and Indigenous Knowledge Systems, to call these phenomenon “systems” is related to what must have been communicated or written down as revealing what these religious and indigenous systems are to begin with, what they have or hold the truth to be. The conception of truth, the revelation of truth is prior to the determination of the system. Systems arise to establish the certainty of that truth when one’s primary ground is ‘doubt’; the Greeks’ primary ground was ‘trust’ and ‘doubt’ was required to show why that trust was an appropriate response to the world.

In TOK, concepts and questions are “systematically” connected to each other, and each has its appropriate place within the “framework” i.e. we do not question the biological nature of a tree in Group One subjects; there, in Group One, the tree is something different than the tree studied in the Group 4 subjects (and yet, paradoxically, it is not). The place within the system of a knowledge problem or a knowledge question is the interconnection, the “relatedness”, that marks out the direction and range of our questioning i.e. how our ways of knowing are connected to or joined up with the areas of knowledge to be investigated. In other writings we have called this the “logos”, that which “gathers together”. In TOK, the logos is what we have called the “framework”. This framework depends on our human being in the world: the original and unique connection of the concepts that we use is and has already been established by human being itself, what knowledge becomes and what we understand as our “shared knowledge”. The concepts depend on how human beings have come to interpret Being at a particular time.

The six great traditional religions of the world can be viewed as those who adhere to truth as a Being and as a way of being (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism), and truth as “Law” or the revelation, the “unconcealment” of the Being of God revealed in the written Word of the Law (Judaism, Islam).

This joining together of human beings and the Being of God or the gods is what the Greeks understood as dike or justice. It was a “fitting together”, a “fittedness” and contained overtones of ‘fate’, or what one has to ‘bow down to’ or succumb to, whether it be weaker nations to stronger nations as in the historian Thucydides, or the individual to their own circumstances which are beyond their control. It named a ‘joining’ or a ‘jointedness’, a holding together of the human being to their time. When Hamlet says “The time is out of joint”, he is referring both to his ‘unfittedness’ for the task given to him (revenge for the murder of his father) as well as to his sense of the ‘unfairness’, understood as a ‘fittingness’ that he suffers from the burden of his task which is his destiny. Hamlet cannot see any justice in his world and, thus, hates his world.

Dike is what the Greeks understood as Necessity. For Plato, human beings in their desire for the perfection of the Good are required to understand the gulf that separates the Necessary from the Good itself. Not to do so makes human beings idolatrous and causes them to choose that shadow of the Good which is present in the things themselves rather than the Good itself. The theoretical viewing, the manifold ways in which one looks at the world, and the practical action are not separate for the Greeks. This is made quite explicit in Republic by Plato: not to distinguish between the Necessary and the Good is to choose the Great Beast that is the social and to desire the prestige that comes from the worship of the social as presented in Book VI of Republic.  

The fragment of the first Greek philosopher Anaximander speaks: ‘out of those things whence is the generation for existing things, into these again does their destruction take place, according to what must needs be (necessity); for they make amends [diken] and give reparation to one another for their offense [adikias], according to the ordinance of time’: Anaximander’s conception of the world is the prototype of the Greek view of nature as a cosmos, a harmonious realm within which the waxing and waning of the elemental powers march in step with the astronomical cycles. Dike, thought in terms of being as presence, is the joining-enjoining order that Plato understood as Necessity. Adikia, the out-of-joint, is disorder and, therefore, injustice. The theoretical viewing and the practical action (the ethics) are not separate from each other; they are inextricably linked to each other. Socrates at the end of the Phaedrus prays for the unity of the inward and outward worlds of human being: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one.”

The relationship between technology as the theoretical viewing and justice as the requirement of our practical actions is at the core of the thinking in the comments of these blogs about TOK and the questioning which occurs, why it occurs and how it occurs in TOK.

“Technology” is a very difficult word to define. Most of us understand it as the sum of all modern techniques i.e. as the sum of all the substance of the content of the IB Diploma programme including the ways of knowing, the areas of knowledge, what is called “personal knowledge” and what has come to be called our understanding and interpretation of our “shared knowledge”. By naming or calling a “system” the knowledge that occurs through a “religious” way of being-in-the-world reveals how dominant technology is and how technology comes to determine how we view the world from out of ourselves.

The understanding presented here is that “technology” (coming from the Greek words “techne“: to make; and “logos“: to know or to reason although this is still far too inadequate an understanding) is the unique co-penetration of the knowing and making of the arts and the sciences which originated in Western Europe and has now become worldwide. But “technology” is still an inadequate word for what is going on within us and around us.

It is foolish to say that technology dominates the Group 4 subjects and not the Group 1 or Group 6 subjects. Anyone who is awake in any part of our IB educational system knows that the paradigm of what it conceives knowledge to be stamps the institutions of the system; and it stamps the curriculum in what the young are required to know and be able to do if they are to be called ‘qualified’. In Greek, education is paideia, a “stamp” or a “paradigm”. This unifying technology as a stamp or paradigm is part of that destiny that sends us on our way and shapes our understanding of the ‘shared knowledge’ in which we are situated. While initially a Western destiny, technology has now become the world-wide destiny. It is what is understood by the word dike above.

Aristotle indicates that human beings are the religious animal; by this I think he means that human beings will have a religion whether they like it or not and whether they “believe” in it or not. The atheist will have a “religion” for first principles are required for any action and these first principles will be the religion or belief of that person who holds that they are atheists and will in self-contradiction insist that they do not ‘believe in’ any first principles. First principles are found in that knowledge that the Greeks defined as “sophia” and were the foundation or the “grounds” of the “theoretical” knowledge that were occasioned by these first principles. Our axioms, for example, are those first principles which have their “shining” in themselves and are not products of human beings; our laws in mathematics and the sciences are those products that human beings have “brought forth” from the beholding of these axioms. But how many of us still look in wonder at 1+1=2 and in that beholding are moved to thinking about and contemplating the nature of a “1” or the nature of a “2” and how a 1 and another 1 bring about a 2?

To prevent some of the controversial (and often silly) discussions that come from viewing religion in its institutionalized forms, we will view religion as “what we bow down to” or “what we look up to”, that which we hold as the ‘loftiest’. The ‘systemic’ manner of viewing the outward appearance, the presence or phenomenon of any religious being in the world is to be contrasted with that ‘way of life’ which is the true being and essence of those religions. Most adherents to any religious way of being insist that one must be “inside” the “system” or the religion in order to truly and fully understand it i.e. it is not something that can be comprehended “objectively” or as an “object”.

For most of the sophisticated in today’s society, the religion that they adhere to is the “religion of progress”, “the ascent of man”. To give the most general substance to this religion, it might be said to be the “willing” of justice in the world and this religious way of being represents the ideal of what these human beings aspire to. Its primary belief is that the progress of the arts and sciences would/will help alleviate the human condition, that is, bring about greater justice. This is what the “international mindedness” and “global citizenship” that the IB Learner Profile and the IB’s mission statement attempts to promote. Negatively, this progress helps to eliminate many of the injustices of the past; positively, it would open new apprehensions of what justice is by making a greater percentage of the population wise. This hope or goal of making the general population wise is the blurring of the ancient distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, for in the thinking of the ancients, only the few were capable of theoretical knowledge while everyone was capable of practical knowledge or “common sense”. This gap in multivarious forms remains with us today.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Many people throughout the world who are most deeply engrossed in the arts and sciences still see their engrossment and engagement in terms of the realization of justice. Our participation in CAS activities is our putting this hope into practice. We might call it the religion of the atheists of the left and it has its foundations in the thought of the French philosopher Rousseau. This atheism of the left has already been called a predicate of the subject technology in this blog. Rousseau’s work on education, Emile, indicates that the cost of such an education would not be available to the mass of humanity. Rousseau makes quite clear that increasing education of the masses will also correspond to a greater increase of inequality within the society.

The religion of the atheists of the right is also technology: the will to will of their own will to power i.e. what we have come to call “empowerment” in many statements of what we think we are as human beings and what we think is the purpose of our actions in the world. The central knowledge question and knowledge issue related to whether or not we, as human beings, are our own as is understood in our humanist understandings or whether or not we, as human beings, are not our own as is understood in all the world’s great religions is the core of what must be thought about and reflected on in any discussion of “religious knowledge systems”.

Both sides of the atheism that focuses on human beings as being their own are dominated by technology as that first principle which creates those other principles that motivate their actions. Those who chose to express their religion within a traditional form or domain i.e. one of the world’s six great religions, are still dominated by technology as a way of viewing and being in the world. That is, technology has become their “world view” and their religion has degenerated into a “world picture” or a “system” as the IB has chosen to call it in the recent TOK guide.

But the core issue for these writings on TOK in general, and of Religious Knowledge Systems in particular since at the root of all great religions is the desire and thirst for justice, is not the practical one of the fact that from this technology have come forth powers that can be used for purposes that speak against justice (e.g. the majority of those who study Group 3 subjects will not use their knowledge to “cure” human beings but to make them more “ill” i.e. they will become the advertising experts, financial advisors, economists, historians etc. of the future  as they take their place within the corporations and institutions that dominate our societies and determine, and are determined by, the regimes of our societies), but that technology itself may speak against any traditional notion of justice and may blur any understanding of what justice is that is not apprehended from beyond ourselves and beyond our own making.

We can all make out lists of issues coming forth from technology that threaten justice and these make up the substance of most of our teaching in our classrooms. Many of the best people are aware of these issues and difficulties and are doing their best to try to make the world more congruent with justice. But in doing so we are denying that the present difficulties in the world constitute a real ‘ambiguity’ in technology itself. (On a practical level, all of us must be concerned in the name of justice with one or other of the practical problems such as climate change, pollution, population, etc.).

The ‘ambiguity’ of the realization of technology has meant a dimming of our ability to think justice lucidly. Technology, which came into the world carrying in its heart the hope of justice, has in its realization dimmed the ability of those who live in it to think justice. The “objectivization” and “disposability” of that which is ourselves and not ourselves is a prior determining of our understanding of what justice is.

Immanuel Kant

The most influential contemporaries (the keepers of the fire in Plato’s cave) would deny that anything essential has been lost in our ability to think justice during the realization of technology. They would assert that justice was/is at the heart of technology from its origins. Progress in the control and commandeering of human and non-human nature is essential for the improvement of justice in the world. And what is justice apart from its existence in the world? The control of nature has freed us to bring about justice in the world which was not possible when we were bound by immediate tasks. In modern ethics, beyond the practical claims, the assertions have been made that justice can appear to thought with greater clarity than ever before because it can now be understood as utterly the work of human beings. This is the legacy of the shared knowledge that has come to us from the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

What is Justice?

Socrates in affirming that justice is “what we are fitted for” is asserting that justice is intimated for us in the ordinary occurrences of space and time. In these occurrences one is reaching towards some knowledge of the good which is not subject to change and which rules us in a way more pressing than the rule of any particular good (human beings aspire to the perfection of what it means to be human and this perfection is to be found in the Good). In the Phaedrus Plato writes of the beauty of the world, and Socrates states that it is the beauty of the world that leads us to justice. It is the beauty of the world that gives to us an intimation of the harmony that is the jointedness of the inner and outer worlds that is the substance of Socrates’ prayer at the end of the Phaedrus.

Beauty is always seducing while justice often appears unattractive. If in this world we could see justice as it is in itself, it would engulf us in its loveliness according to Socrates. But that is not our situation. Justice’s demands make it unattractive both to our conveniences and in our apprehension of the situations which call for our response. This is the essence of the knowledge problems and the questions that arise from them that are posed in the current Guide’s emphasis on how our knowledge relates to ethics. This emphasis and the questions posed all relate to justice either overtly or inadvertently.

Because the harmony of beauty is in some sense immediately apprehended by us, it is the means by which we are led to that more complete harmony which is justice itself. The harmony of beauty is not of our own making i.e. it is not a beauty that is in the eye of the beholder for if this is or were the case, we would need to ask “what then is beholding?” It is our apprehension of what we think beholding is and of what we do when we “behold” that prevents us from understanding or grasping the beauty of the world: our science cannot conceive of the objective world as beautiful in itself.

The Socratic affirmation about justice can be put negatively by saying that if we are realistic about our loves and realistic about any conceivable conditions of the world, and if we apprehend the unchangingness of justice, we must understand that justice is in some sense “other” to us, and has a cutting edge which often seems to be turned upon our very selves. The unchangingness of justice is given to us in the fact that we can know in advance that there are actions which must never be done (cf. Macbeth).  Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but is the beholding itself of that which is human and that which is beyond time and space (see William Blake on the Divine Imagination).

What is meant by being realistic about our loves is that justice is very often not what we would want in any recognizable sense of ‘want’. What is meant by being realistic about the conditions of the world is that I cannot imagine any conditions in which some lack of harmony in some human being would not be putting claims on me–the meeting of which would often carry me whither I would not. Teachers of the young experience this on a daily basis; parents, too, are often participants in this requirement of justice. The young often experience the requirements of justice as restrictions on their freedom to do what they will.

Plato-raphaelBut as soon as justice as “otherness” is expressed in the negation that it is something other than what we desire, we must hold with the positive affirmation that we can know justice as our need in the sense that it is necessary to happiness, and we can have intimations of loving its harmony. The holding together in thought of our need and love of justice and its demanding “otherness” is expressed by Plato in ontological terms: justice is an “idea”. Justice is an unchanging measure of all our times and places and our love of it defines us as human beings. But our desiring need of an unchangeable good which calls upon us to pay its price is theoretically incongruent with what is thought in technology.

For example, one can easily describe realized human love these days as if it were the height for human beings, and our modern media abound with examples of this; yet, at the same time, for some it is described as if it were not qualitatively different from our need for food and is simply another expression of our appetites. How difficult it is to see it as neither height nor simply as appetite, but as the intimation of that immediacy of justice which Plato has described as “fire catching fire”, that intimation of justice’s presence as a recognition of ‘otherness’ of both other human beings and of the world. This is the core of all the great religions.

Issues for Language and Religion:

First, in using the word “idea”, I recognize that I am using a language which has no meaning in the current day to day everydayness of events. (Think of what “idea” means today or what we have come to call our “ideals”). “Soul” and “oblivion of eternity” run the same problems. Second, one must beware of using language which springs from the new forms of thought which have brought the current modern world about.

“Transcendence” is a popular word now; but it comes forth from the thinking of “freedom as autonomy”, firmly fixed so beautifully in the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. But this thinking is part of the loss brought about by the technology. (One of the main tasks of this TOK course is to make students mindful of the use of such language).

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

Third, and more important, the question of language is difficult because it must never move away from what is pressed upon us concerning justice in our daily situations. This is the difficulty for all of us: if we are to speak about the essence of justice we must always start from where it meets us in an immediate way every day. The French philosopher Simone Weil says: “Human nature is so arranged that any desire of the soul which has not passed through the flesh by way of actions, movements and attitudes which correspond to it naturally, has no reality in the soul. It is only there as a phantom.” (“Theory of the Sacraments” in Gateway to God Williams Collins and Sons: Glasgow 1974 p. 40). Much of modern Ethics thinking is no more than these academic phantoms because the problems and questions that arise have the appearance of being abstracted from the immediacies of justice. Think of the “trolley car problem” and how it has become applied to self-driving cars as an example; it seems that in this abstract ‘ethics’ problem, self-driving cars will not be fitted with brakes! The realities of the world present sufficient conundrums for the reasoning associated with ethical questions in real-life situations that we can dismiss such academic phantoms and not waste our time with them.

Martin Heidegger

The central ontological confrontation of thinking in the West is that between Plato’s concept of “truth” as “aletheia” (unhiddenness) and Martin Heidegger’s criticism of that concept. Heidegger criticizes Plato’s account of “being” as “idea” because it is the foundation of the definition of truth as “correctness” or “correspondence” and is therefore the foundation of the age of metaphysics or of the technology that realizes itself through the principle of reason (which are one and the same for Heidegger). According to Heidegger, this is the originating affirmation from which Western technological rationalism comes forth. The attentive reader will notice that what is singularly absent in Heidegger’s discussion of the “idea” is the “politeia“, the virtues (the ethics, if you will) in which the Sun, the Line, and the Cave are written. The powerful and pain filled language used by Plato concerning the breaking of the chains, the climbing out of the Cave into the light of the sun, and the return to the Cave are all related to the virtue of justice and its dependence upon the Sun or the Good. This is absent from Heidegger’s commentary. From his translation of the allegory of the Cave, one would not be able to understand that in the Sun, the Line, and the Cave, the metaphor of sight is to be taken as love. That which we love and which is the source of our love is outside the Cave, but it is the possibility of the fire in the Cave and of the virtues that make it possible for getting out of the Cave, for the fire to catch fire. When Heidegger defines good as used by Plato simply formally as what we are fitted for, he does not give content to that fitting as Socrates does when he says that it is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it (Gorgias). Heidegger describes Plato’s doctrine of truth so that “being” as “idea” is abstracted from love of justice in terms of which the “idea” can be alone be understood as separate. Goodness itself is beyond Being and there is a great gulf separating the Necessity of Being from the Idea of the Good.

Heidegger is the consummate historicist. For our students for whom the university is a destination, scholarship and the research associated with it as a substitute for thought is being imposed on them, but it is that historicist scholarship which destroys the presence of the past. Knowing technology for what it is requires recognition of what has been lost politically and ethically, and what has been found in technology’s coming into being. The questioning that TOK students must begin in their study of knowledge and its relation to religion is the questioning that will lead them to thinking about justice.








TOK: November 2017 Titles Deconstructed

Deconstructing the Prescribed Titles for November 2017

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 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.

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.

The Six Titles:

  1. Is the value of knowledge related to how easy it is to access? Develop your answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

In title #1 the key concepts that need to be examined are “value”, “knowledge”, “related”, and “ease of access”. The candidate is asked to develop their answer with reference to two AOKs. It is the choices of the AOKs that are crucial in the determination of the response to the question and you will notice that the title is in the form of a question. So, is the “value” of knowledge related to how easy it is to access in that AOK?

The title asks you to explore what the concept of ‘value‘ is in relation to ‘knowledge’ within two areas of knowledge (AOKs). “Ease of access” relates to the ways of knowing (WOKs) with reference to the two areas of knowledge which you will choose. This “ease of access” occurs in the interlinking open region between personal and shared knowledge.

We are given “ease of access” when we feel “at home” in something: a trained chef in the kitchen is “at home” in the kitchen because he “knows his way about” the kitchen; he is familiar with the tools in the world of the kitchen and he is familiar with the contents and qualities of the foods and the seasonings that are needed to be used to bring about a successful result . You have a fondness for certain subjects because you feel “at home” in them and the knowledge of the subject matter is easy for you to gain access to. This kind of knowledge was called “techne” by the Greeks. It requires a “knowing beforehand” of those things that are contained in the world of the kitchen or in the AOK so that you ‘feel at home’ in that particular domain. It is an expertise or a ‘know-how’: “I know x; I know how to y”. Look at the blog entry for “What is Knowledge” to get some assistance here.

The word “value” is the word that we moderns have come to use to replace the word “good” (agathon). For the Greeks, the “good” of something was determined by its “usefulness” or its “fittedness” for some thing or as some thing. It is fitting or useful that animals should breathe; it is not good or fitting if they do not do so. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” does not refer to the increased possibilities for action towards survival of someone who works out in the gym every day so that he or she is ‘fit’, but refers to the animal which is best able to adapt to the environment in which it finds itself. This adaptation or modification is “useful” to the animal in its survival. Working out is useful for health; health is fitting to the human animal.

With regard to the things that human beings make, their ‘fittedness’ is their ability to carry out those tasks for which they have been designed or produced: we ‘value’ Porsches and Ferraris because they are fit as automobiles to go fast and help us to enjoy the experience of motoring. So we can conclude that we value the knowledge that is of some “use” to us, whatever that use may be as it brings about some desired end which is “good” for us and our “happiness” or “well-being”.

If you look at the post entitled “What is Knowledge?” you can begin by examining and questioning whether the knowledge that might be spoken about with regard to the title is sophia (wisdom or knowledge of the first or divine things), theoretical knowledge, techne (know how or knowing one’s way about something or within something), phronesis or noetic knowledge (or intelligence as information). Of these, only phronesis is related to the kind of knowledge which is good for oneself i.e. one’s personal knowledge. All the other types of knowledge can be considered good for oneself indirectly, but they are generally considered to be “in another and for another”. The other four types of knowledge deal with shared knowledge predominantly. Phronesis relates to choices that determine actions. Phronetic knowledge is gained from experience and through experience. The other types of knowledge, when viewed within the knowledge framework, deal with choices that have been pre-determined by the methodology that arises from the understanding of things that are to be studied in the area of knowledge as concepts i.e. theoretical knowledge determines the method that will allow one access to the things that are of concern in the AOK under consideration.

If one is considering Religious Knowledge Systems, presumably what is meant by system is “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.” (Notice that I am violating one of the principles of writing the TOK essay and using a dictionary definition of the word “system”.) This is the “how” that is mentioned in the title. A system prescribes the action to be taken, the choices to be made. So if we are looking at the five great world religions and how they have understood and interpreted the revelation of what they consider truth and knowledge to be, we can see that they have their truth revealed as either Law or as Being and from this a “methodology” has been determined on how one should conduct one’s life. Elsewhere in this blog I have written that religion is what we bow down to or what we look up to. A “system” may very well result from this initial stance towards what is bowed down to or looked up to. We in the West “bow down to” the results that can be achieved in the application of the knowledge that has come about through the theoretical sciences.

The great religions such as Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism understand their “knowledge” as a  way of being in the world i.e. to attain the highest end for human beings one must live like Christ or the Buddha or according to the Way in Taoism. For Christians, this “living like Christ” is then to be found in the various sects that have arisen over the centuries that best express this Christ-like ideal i.e. Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. Any “real” Christian will tell you that trying to live like Christ in the modern age is certainly not easy. How, in fact, is it possible to live as a Christian in the universities of our times? The life prescribed by the great religions is a great, pain-filled struggle.

Likewise for a Buddhist: to try to follow the Buddha’s prescriptions for attaining nirvana could hardly be considered “easy”. In Taoism, too, remaining within the Way is never considered easy. In all of these cases “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” when it comes to modelling one’s being in the world in following the lives of the ideal Being. Both Christianity and Buddhism could hardly be called “systems” as outlined in the definition above. The “system” arises when one looks at the various interpretations of the Bible or of the Buddhist texts that have come to be when one is to understand how “living like Christ” or “living like the Buddha” is to be undertaken. In Taoism, the Way is revealed through Nature, but there are basic human principles and standards that must be followed in order to achieve happiness. It is the closest to what might be called a “system” according to the definition.

Islam and Judaism have their truth revealed as Law, whether through the Koran or the Torah. One obeys the revealed word of God. Islam’s major sects are Shias, Sunnis and Sufis, but there are a myriad of other interpretations of the Koran present in other minor sects as well. Judaism also has its own sects that interpret the Torah either “fundamentally” or not. All of the religions mentioned contain basis tenets that believers within those religions adhere to as it is these basic tenets that determine who they are as human beings within the religion spoken of.

In the impertinent precis of these religions provided here, “ease of access” is certainly something which can be questioned and examined. What is clear is that the “truth” of these religions is available to everyone and in most cases is part of their shared knowledge. It is perhaps the misunderstanding of the “ease of access” to this truth that is the cause of so many of the world’s problems today.

Such “ease of access” is, obviously, not the case in modern physics where theoretical, noetic and techne prevail in the realm of what knowledge is considered to be. Only the few will have access to the mathematics and the apparatus necessary for “ease of access” to the truths of modern physics, biology, and chemistry. Such “ease” of access is only available in the wealthy advanced technological economies. The scientific method can hardly be described as “easy” when conducted properly; you have direct experience of this in your Group 4 subjects. Again, you can explore a number of different approaches and possibilities as determined by your choice of the AOKs.

But what about our theories, our theoretical knowledge? Our theoretical knowledge is, in fact, what is most fitting for us as human beings and, therefore, most valued although we skip over this value. We are caught up in the production or application that results from the theories and become lost in the “usefulness” of the products that are the result of the viewing that is grounded in the theories. All applications and production are the result of the theory that grounds those applications and products. Without the theory, no products, no applications.

Our theories are bound up in Reason and Language as WOKs primarily, with Sense Perception Imagination and Intuition playing secondary roles. It is from the perspective of the viewing that is theoretical knowledge that we are able to plan and design, to fabricate and create those tools or things that bring about our desired ends, that which we value. You should explore these through any two WOKs that you wish to choose. Go with your strengths.

With regard to your examples, choose from your own studies in the AOKs and from your own personal experiences. Using the knowledge framework, you might begin with the historical background of the subject areas, AOKs, that you wish to choose. What were the significant events/findings in the AOK? What new language came into being because of the need to see the world anew from the findings? For example, for Newton and Leibniz to ground their theoretical viewing of Nature, it became necessary for them to communicate that viewing through infinitesimal and finite calculus. Now, in physics, all results must be communicated mathematically. What necessities of communication are required in the AOK that you have chosen? How is this language linked to your personal knowledge? What roles do “subjectivity” and “objectivity” play in your examples?

A fruitful discussion of Group 3 subjects can result from an exploration of how theoretical knowledge,  noetic knowledge and techne has resulted from how knowledge as information is applied to the various studies of human beings that are conducted in the AOK. Examples of the use of statistics and models in the Human Sciences can be used to demonstrate how these establish “relations” between the knower and the object of study, in this case, other human beings.

“Relatedness” refers to language as a way of knowing. How we relate as Knowers to the AOKs is done through our WOKs and in the examples given here these are focused on Reason and Language. Any relation is established and must be established through language whether that language is mathematics or words as concepts and ideas. Again, a discussion of “shared knowledge” can be explored in looking at this key word.

In our Information Age, we value the knowledge that has been turned into “information” so that it can be processed as data for its efficient use and transformation. This “efficiency” and “speed” or “ease of access” to this “knowledge”as information is why this type of knowledge is valued in the modern.

Possible Knowledge questions

  • is our view of the value of knowledge dominated by the usefulness of that knowledge in its applications?
  • is “common sense” undervalued in our world view? what role does common sense have to play in today’s societies?
  • what role does the difficulty of access to knowledge play in the stratification of our social classes in our societies?
  • how does the concept of the view of truth relate to the “ease of access” of knowledge and how this knowledge is interpreted?

Possible examples

  • exploration of the whole notion of “alternative facts” and their relation to “knowledge as information and its “ease of access”
  • exploration of the mathematics created by Newton and Leibniz
  • historical background of the AOKs providing examples of “ease” (the discovery of penicillin, August Kekulé’s structure of benzene)
  • In History, “why” or “how” questions are more difficult to answer and do not have “the ease of access” that the 4Ws questions (who, what , where, when) have and are, hence, more highly valued
  1. “Every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies our view of the world” (Nathan Jurgenson). Discuss.

For Title #2, do not spend your time focusing on finding out who Nathan Jurgenson is. Focus on the issues and questions that result from the statement. Title #2 focuses on the manner in which theoretical knowledge establishes “grounds” or “the ground” in relation to providing the certainty and surety of what we think our knowledge to be. Reason and Language are the primary WOKs to be discussed through the title, but Imagination, Intuition, and Memory can also be used in establishing the “shared knowledge” that comes to determine the knowledge framework that in turn develops the “system” or methodology that will, in turn, determine the actions and decisions that will result from the theory.

Title #2 recognizes that theoretical knowledge establishes ‘our’ view of the world, our “world-view”. Using the knowledge framework, you might begin by questioning who the “our” refers to in the title and think about Indigenous Knowledge Systems as a point of departure on the exploration of the title or consider counter claims from this point of view. With “theory”, ‘our’ can only be referring to ourselves who live in the West or those of us who are from the West. Our view is, of course, now becoming the world’s view and, thus, its “world view”,  but this “world view’s” grounding theories are hardly thought upon. Does ‘our’ mean all human beings here or does the ‘our’ refer to Western thinking?


When I ask students the meaning of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ phrase: “Every thing is full of gods” they are dumbfounded and do not know. When I ask someone steeped in the upbringing of the Balinese tradition, I am responded to with a look of puzzlement and an “Of course they are. Isn’t it obvious”?  This example is parallel to the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia. Such examples illustrate the differences that are possible in the viewing of the world. In the West (and here I am referring to Western Europe where the theories first arose), with its four seasons and temperate climate, it is possible to speak of the ‘scarcity of nature’. Such a phrase simply does not make sense to someone from Bali, even though the Balinese have suffered severe famines in the past.

It is the “world view” that establishes the certainty and surety of theory that provides the stability of the grounds of the theoretical viewing. Our Western world-view is a product of many centuries of our understanding of what Being is and how it has been determined in our understanding and interpretation. A “world view” constitutes human being in the world and is prior to and determines the theory which is a product of that world view. The theory provides a “world picture” (a framing) which is sequent to the world view. A world view is the view of the whole of things and what and how that whole is. It is the view upon Being and from this view arise various theories about the being of beings or things or how the being of things will be determined. “World pictures” result from “world views” and so here in TOK we speak of a “knowledge framework”.

Using the knowledge framework, you can explore the historical background of the chief theories that are present or are assumed in the AOKs that you will choose. Theoretical knowledge is based on first principles, the most predominant of which is the principle of reason: Nothing is without (a) reason, or Nothing is without a cause. The first principles establish the ground which gives the ‘stability’ and the ‘solidity’ of the theory’s looking so that the thing can come to a stand and be known through this stand (under-standing). Once the thing is known, knowledge of it can be communicated in language whether the language be mathematics or words (interpretation).

The theory is the looking that brings things to ‘presence’ for us and stabilizes them in terms of how we know them in that historical moment. Discuss this in relation to the WOKs. The strange thing is that the things resist being known in this way and this is what causes the “destabilization” of which the title speaks. You might wish to discuss how language creates this ‘instability’ whether that language is words or mathematics. It is the relation of ourselves to our worlds that creates this stability or instability on the ground of how we view that world.

In the AOK Natural Sciences, the historical background of the different world-views given in the ancients, Newton, and modern physics could be possibilities of exploration. Aristotle, Newton/Leibniz, Einstein’s special relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are examples that might be explored. But do be fresh with your thoughts on Newton and Einstein as these tend to be examples overused by students in TOK essays. How stability and instability reigned/reign in these historical examples are fruitful grounds of exploration, but be sure that you focus on the knowledge questions that arise which each shift or change in the theory. You might want to explore the crisis that has arisen in modern science through the discoveries of modern physics and what knowledge has come to mean in modern physics. Many attempts are being made by modern scientists to overcome Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle at the present time.

Werner Heisenberg

All of the AOKs are appropriate for examination through this title. One can use the knowledge framework to gather examples from the AOKs to initiate knowledge questions with regard to the “stability” or “instability” of the knowledge in the AOK. In the Natural Sciences, the knowledge questions arising from relativity and quantum physics is a good example to explore. You might explore this quote from Werner Heisenberg: “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 

Note the “instability” that arises from Heisenberg’s statement here with regard to what has traditionally been understood as “knowledge”.

In Mathematics, formal and applied mathematics provide examples to assist in a discussion and questioning of the title, particularly with regard to “stability” and “instability” in that AOK. Connections can be made between the surety and certainty of a world view that provides a mathematically calculable universe and the certainty that those calculations provide to any researcher anywhere in the world in the surety of their findings in their calculations. This can be related to the pragmatic theory of truth.

One can discuss that it is the goal of The Arts and artists to “destabilize” the status quo. Questions such as “Is the work of art the theory of the art itself?” Is insecurity and instability the very nature of what Art is? and so on. “How can we know the dancer from the dance” as William Butler Yeats would say?

Be sure to use TOK language when discussing the examples i.e. refer to the shared knowledge and personal knowledge and how these change with the shift in the ‘view of the world’ brought about by these changing theories. Make reference to the knowledge framework. You might want to include a discussion of paradigms of knowledge and how these paradigms provide stability to our viewing of “reality”.

In the Arts you might want to discuss examples of how the shift to the theory of ‘aesthetics’ historically parallels the shift that occurred with Newton in the Natural Sciences. You might want to explore how our focus has turned to the artist as agent or creator rather than on the work of art itself and what the essence of art might be. How have the discoveries of modern physics changed how we view the Arts today? Picasso’s cubism might be a good example to explore.

Possible Knowledge questions

  • how has the indeterminacy principle of Heisenberg created a crisis for science and for what has traditionally been understood as knowledge?
  • is it possible to achieve knowledge that is beyond our “world view”? If so, what would be the nature of this knowledge?
  • what is considered knowledge in the view of “reality” or the world of “facts” that is present in the Arts and sciences today?
  • is it possible to have knowledge when one approaches art through aesthetics?
  • how does the knowledge framework) illustrate the key concepts of “stability” and “instability” in the title?
  • what is considered “stability” in the AOKs of your choice?

Possible examples

  • classical (Newtonian) physics and quantum physics: the debate between Einstein and Heisenberg
  • the relation between theory and paradigm shifts and their initial instability
  • instability as the purpose of the Arts
  • the principle of reason as providing the stability for all mathematical projections of Nature
  1. Over time, knowledge has become more accurate.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #3 is a challenging one and can present a number of traps for the unwary TOK student. In many ways it is very similar to title #2.

Title #3’s basic question is whether or not what is commonly understood as “knowledge” progresses “over time” and that this “progress” can be understood as “greater accuracy”. Again, by examining the various types of knowledge that are discussed in What is Knowledge?  one can determine if, in fact, what types of knowledge do “progress” and what types of knowledge do not. A discussion of “progress” in the AOKs through the knowledge framework might be a useful place to start with your planning.  A question to be considered might be “Is it knowledge that progresses or the applications of that knowledge and their usefulness to human beings that indicate progress”?

“Progress” relates to “accuracy” in the title. The need for accuracy is required by the principle of reason and the correspondence and coherence theories of truth. Once again, Reason and Language as WOKs can be used to discuss this title and Sense Perception as a WOK can be used to provide juxtapositions or counter claims with regard to the need required for accuracy in what we determine knowledge to be in the AOKs that you choose. How do the methodologies of the AOKs provide “accuracy” in what they determine knowledge to be? Title #3 and Title #4 are very close to each other in terms of the concepts that they are using i.e. “testing”, “supporting”, “reliable” and so on. Why is “accuracy” and what type of “accuracy” is required in each of the AOKs that you will use. Obviously, one hopes for accuracy in the products that are the result of the knowledge when it comes to engineering, etc. We do not wish to live in buildings or cross bodies of water on bridges which are not constructed with “accuracy” from those who have studied engineering! Such a desire for accuracy is not required when it comes to the Arts. There are lots of possibilities and directions here.

In choosing your AOKs, you will need to look at what knowledge is conceived to be in those AOKs and how this knowledge is communicated. Use the knowledge framework to explore the historical background of the AOK as this will help you with the ‘over time’ element of the question. You may wish to explore you own development in becoming more “accurate” in your own understanding of what knowledge may be.

How does knowledge understood as theoretical, techne, phronesis, and noesis operate in the AOKs that you have chosen? When we speak of knowledge in The Human Sciences, for instance, why do we use models and statistics as choices for communicating the knowledge or results discovered there? What is knowledge in the Human Sciences? For what end is this knowledge to be put?

“Accurate” can be interpreted as “correctness” or “correspondence”: the object under study corresponds with the idea or the theoretical viewing that is present in the mind of the observer. In order for knowledge to become more accurate it must have been conceived as less accurate beforehand, that the prior viewing was somehow found wanting. What, for example, is “accuracy” in the AOK History?

In History we search for the causes of events using Reason in order to gain an explanation and an understanding of those events. The event in its standing is the object of our research. When we have gained the knowledge of what we believe to be the “cause” of something, this provides us with an explanation of the “what” of that something, its essence.

Possible Knowledge questions

  • what is the nature of knowledge? does knowledge “progress”? If so, what kind of knowledge is it that we believe “progresses”? What kind of knowledge does not progress?
  • by what standard or norm do we reference the “accuracy” of our knowledge?
  • why and how does the principle of reason demand “accuracy” in what we call knowledge?
  • is there a difference between “precision” and “accuracy” with reference to knowledge?

Possible examples

  • the role of “accuracy” in classical (Newtonian) physics and quantum physics
  • the concept of “accuracy” in the Arts i.e. Shakespeare’s characters as representations of real human beings
  • what is “accuracy” in the Arts? does “accuracy” have any role to play in the Arts
  • relations between predictability and accuracy in economics, the Human Sciences in general
  1. Areas of knowledge have methods for testing and supporting knowledge claims. How can we know that these methods themselves are reliable? Develop your answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #4 is not primarily about the nature of knowledge (the theoretical) but the way knowledge is constructed or arrived at, the results: the knowledge claim achieved through the methodology of the particular AOK. The theory is already assumed. The knowledge framework should be used to explore this title which primarily focuses on “shared knowledge”. From where the methodology arises should be explored i.e. the theory or the looking that requires testing and reliability.

The implication in the title is that we tend to find “results” that have been rigorously tested more reliable, valid and more useful.  Peer review, verification, the rigour of the procedures required by the methodology itself, clear criteria in the carrying out of the actions to arrive at the results are concepts that we seem to value in many AOKS whether they be in the Sciences or the Arts. These procedures or actions are what we call “research“; and research is the predominant activity involving any methodology determined by the principle of reason .  The principle of reason is what supports or grounds the knowledge claims made in the AOKs requiring that non-contradiction, coherence and sufficient reasons be demonstrated. The principle of reason assures us of the “reliability” of the methodology used in conducting the research.

One aspect of “reliability” requires that the results achieved be replicable. To achieve good results in the TOK essay, you are advised to replicate the steps outlined in the advice given in the TOK essay writing PowerPoint. In Group 3 and Group 4 subjects, you are required to observe the “scientific method” in the conduct of your experiments. Think about the “demand” words in the tasks that you have been given over the past two years for examples of how method and “reliability” meet in the demands required of the actions carried out. The principle of reason demands that we seek reliability in our use of mathematics to report our results whether as statistics or as some other mathematical equation. Counter claims can be explored in how the results and their reliability are communicated in the Human and Natural sciences.

Possible Knowledge questions

  • how and why have the methodologies of the AOKs come forth from the theories that are present a priori in the AOKs?
  • why is mathematics considered the most reliable and effective means of the grounding support for the reporting of results? why are statistics not necessarily reliable as results?
  • what is research and what role does it play in the testing and reliability of the knowledge gained in various AOKs?
  • why is reliability required in the rendering of the results of the search for knowledge through the various methodologies of the AOKs?

Possible examples

  • String theory and the role of evidence in the sciences with regard to reliability
  • Alfred Wegener and continental drift in Human Sciences
  • Atomic models and theories from John Dalton to J.J. Thompson to Ernest Rutherford to Niels Bohr to Erwin Schrödinger as possible explanations and accounts
  • economic models and their reliability in prediction
  • the reliability of “experts” in the critique of the Arts, etc.
  1. “The simplest explanation is the best explanation.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The three key terms of Title #5 are “simplest”, “best”, and “explanation”. What is an “explanation”? What is “simplicity”? What determines whether something is considered to be “good”, “better”, “best”?

“Explanation” is the “rendering” that is attempted through language as a way of knowing. This rendering is a “giving an account of” some thing, an account that must comply with the principles and axioms that are contained in the principle of reason.

Some good examples for this title are Einstein’s theory of special relativity E=MC^2 or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where mathematically we describe the uncertainty principle as the following, where `x’ is position and `p’ is momentum:

Here in these examples we find that “simplicity” masks very great complexities in mathematical calculus (at least for us mere mortals). With both Einstein and Heisenberg, the mathematical equations provide an “explanation” of the phenomena that have been observed. If we remember that “Science is the theory of the real” and the “real” is what we consider “facts”, these principles as “theory” help to provide the explanation for the observations of the “facts” that have been observed and it is through the explanation that these “facts”, in fact, become “facts”.

The discussion of the “good” in relation to title #2 is also appropriate for this title. The “best” is what is most “suitable”, “fitting” and “useful” as the rendering which provides the explanation. This idea of “best explanation” is applicable to all AOKs and can be used to examine some of the “knowledge problems”  and “knowledge claims” that arise in any of those AOKs either historically or conceptually from within the knowledge framework.

What is most important in relation to the title is that a balanced discussion of the two AOKs required is rendered.

Possible Knowledge questions

Knowledge questions that you might identify in the course of the development of a response to the title include:

  • What is the relationship between an “explanation” and what are called “facts”? Are facts neutral entities?
  • how does an “explanation” become the “best” explanation?
  • what is the relationship between the knower and the knowledge that results from the “best explanation”?
  • in the modern physics example given above, in the debate between Einstein and Heisenberg, what are the implications for the nature of knowledge and its “explanation”?

Possible examples

  • Group 3: Keynesian economists and monetarist models: the role of modelling in providing the “best explanation” in the AOK Human Sciences
  • Group 3: The Phillips curve and transient accuracy in economics: is “accuracy” possible within Group 3 subjects and how is accuracy related to the rendering of the “best explanation”?
  • History: The Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of Nazism in Germany: how does “theory” in history affect the rendering of the “explanation” and what is considered a “best explanation” in this AOK?
  • History: Standard rival interpretations of the Cold War: traditional, revisionist, post-revisionist: how does the a priori understanding determine the interpretation that results in the specific rendering of an explanation in this AOK?
  1. “The production of knowledge seems to require creativity at every stage of the process.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #6 is very open in that the responses required and expected depend on the interpretation of the key concepts inherent in the title: “production”, “knowledge”, “seems to”, “creativity”, and “process”. How these key concepts are used in the AOKs chosen will depend upon your use of the knowledge framework which will illustrate your understanding of the key concepts. This will require the proper use of citations.

The “production of knowledge” is the result that comes about through the theoretical knowledge or viewing, the “looking” that initiates the actions, those axioms and principles or the idealizations of the mind’s representations (intuition and imagination) upon which the action is based. These representations in the title can be understood as referring to noetic knowledge and techne as knowledge. 

Any two of the WOKs can be explored and questioned in the AOKs that you choose for this title. What roles, for example, do reason and language as WOKs play in the production of ‘knowledge’ and in the ‘process’ that leads to the final product that is to be considered ‘knowledge’? The title requires a great deal of constraint and focus on the WOKs and the AOKs chosen as all are possible and you can become lost in the myriad of choices.

“To produce” comes from the Latin producere which means “to bring forth”, or “to lead forth”.  You can distinguish between the “production” that is the result of Nature, such as a cherry tree bursting into bloom, and the “production” of human beings which may be a manufactured product or performance presentation in the Arts. Knowledge in the title can be approached as techne or “know how” or “knowing one’s way about or in something”. The “know how” is present in the “knowing one’s way in” the “process” that will ultimately result in a finished “product” which will be of some use or “value” to human beings.

“Creativity” usually means to cause to come into  being something that is unique and that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary or natural processes. The coming into being is the production; the process is the “know how” and the knowing one’s way about or in something that allows this “causation” or “occasioning” to come about. Counter claims can be explored through negative examples of the inability to bring forth or with the discarding of knowledge. No matter how hard I may try to create a work of art, without this “know how” and “knowing one’s way about” being present beforehand, I will never be able to produce a work of art of any merit or value.

The vagueness of the “seems to” in the title relates to the vagueness of the word “creativity”. This modern word underlies the focus on human beings as agents or “makers” in our current humanist world view. Ultimately, “creativity” means “to make” or to “produce”, but it also implies a quality of “originality”, or “uniqueness”. It is this element of “creativity” that is contentious and produces the knowledge questions and knowledge problems that are to be explored through the title. Imagination and intuition are possible WOKs should you choose to focus on this aspect of the title.

Creativity is the bringing forth or the leading forth into the completedness that is the finished product. Your writing of the essay is an example of this “creativity”: your personal knowledge or “know how” (which is also a shared knowledge) leads you to the writing or producing of the essay which will involve a “making” that may also involve imagination and intuition as WOKs in the stages of the process as you move towards its completion, the final result, hopefully, being a unique or original product.

Possible Knowledge questions

Knowledge questions that you might identify in the course of the development of a response to the title include:

  • How is knowledge produced or discarded?
  • How is a finished product, whether it be a work of art or an IPhone, “knowledge”? How is knowledge present in final “products”?
  • What roles do imagination and intuition play as WOKs in the process of producing the finished product which is the “evidence” of knowledge? How is a final product “evidence of knowledge”?
  • What role does prior knowledge (“know how”) play in the use of intuition and imagination at each stage of the production process?

Possible examples

  • any personal activities that involve bringing forth knowledge in your studies or CAS activities i.e. your writing of the essay; your volunteer work
  • exploration of works of art from Group 1 or Group 6 AOKs and the roles of the WOKs in the production of these works
  • examples of any finished product from the AOKs using the historical background of the knowledge framework
  • or possible counter claims through an examination of Ethics because of the necessarily “incompleteness” of any action







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Sense Perception as a Way of Knowing

Sense Perception as a Way of Knowing:


TOKQuestionFor human beings, existence itself is that which is questionable (but why do we ask the “why”?). We experience our existence through our five senses: seeing, taste, touch, hearing and smell, but we still question whether or not there is something that is knowable in the world we experience. Human life, unlike the life of animals (or other entities such as chairs for that matter) is something with which humans must concern themselves. For the historicist thinkers, human being is in such a way as to be something that understands something like Being, and it does so with time as its standpoint. This is why there is such an emphasis on the social and historical contexts placed on your studies.

With sense perception as a way of knowing, it is human being that must be understood first. “Knowing” is one of the ways that human beings “are”. This basic state of our Being-in-the-world must be understood/interpreted first. Otherwise, it is the ‘world’, our ‘world’, that gets passed over and consequently our being -in- the- world; and, therefore, something essential about the Being of human beings is lost in this forgetfulness of the passing over. Why ‘knowing’ does this we will see shortly.

To be mindful of the world is to think about it in our everydayness: our lives at school, our social lives, those things about which we are concerned, and those things that matter to us in some way. These encounters are what make our human Being “come alive”. These ‘ready-to-hand’ entities/things or ‘equipment’ for writing, knitting, measuring and manipulating, for example, are entities that ‘are in order to allow human being to do something; they are not mere ‘things’, their being is ‘for the sake of’ something else’. Think of your current use of the computer, right now, at this particular moment. Furthermore, your computer, ‘equipment’, exists in a ‘totality of relationships’ that ultimately forms the web of your human being in the world. This web is the technological. Thus a computer is for researching and writing or for making social contacts that produce a sense of being alive for you and, by implication, for others. Human being is ‘in’ this world not as a ‘sailor in a ship’ — which he can leave — but ‘in’ in this sense is what human being is; what we are as human beings is our existence in the world; human being is therefore ‘spatial’. This ‘spatialness’ is experienced through sense perception as a way of knowing the world.

We become so caught up in our everyday dealings with the world that we don’t even notice them most of the time, except when something we need is missing or broken — then things are not ‘handy’ (the subway breaks down, for example); then the ‘concernment towards which’ we are oriented is disclosed and, in this way, the “‘world’ “announces itself”. The world is revealed: “in anything ready-to-hand the world is always ‘there'”. This world “does not get created for the first time by knowing it nor does it arise from some way in which the world acts upon a subject”. Rather, we, as human beings, encounter the world; it has ‘significance’ for us as human beings. This significance is what we call ‘experience’.

When we stop to consider or think about the computer, then it is. When we ‘know’ it in this way, the computer is present-at-hand, not ready-to-hand. How is it that I ‘grasp’ what this is? There is an intrinsic relationship between ‘human being’ and the world shown in the way we encounter things in a ready-to-hand way. We do not grasp things just theoretically or mentally but also physically and practically (the world ‘gives’ the things to us). We are not along-side things the way a wall is alongside a chair. The chair and wall never ‘touch’, but a human being encounters the chair, touches the texture of the wall. It does not simply ‘know’ the thing as an isolated subject meeting up against an isolated object. In this latter way of knowing, we have to think of knowledge as a ‘grasping’ or ‘getting it’.  We want to consider knowing [as] …an activity carried out in a particular context, for particular reasons… and so knowing is one aspect in the complex web of activities that make up a culture and a society. In this way of knowing, the ‘world’ is still there and is present-at-hand; we are ‘tarrying-along-side’ but still in the mode of ‘in-order-to’.  We are free to choose to exist as human beings in either an authentic or an inauthentic way in this ‘tarrying-along-side’.

Historical Background: Descartes Thinking on Sense Perception:

DescartesIn our discussions of Reason as a WOK, we examined Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Descartes began his “meditations” by doubting and examining the evidence of his senses. Descartes’ analysis of the ‘thinghood’ of a honeycomb of wax in the Second Meditation culminates in the understanding of it as a res extensa — a substance extended in space that is grasped “by the mind alone”. When everything else it taken away — smell, feel, colour, the sound it makes when struck — a clear and distinct idea of its extension remains. He can come to this understanding because he is, in essence, a ‘thinking thing’ or res cogitans: “Even bodies are not strictly perceivable by the senses or the faculty of the imagination but by the intellect alone and that this perception derives not from being touched or seen but from their being understood” [Descartes, Rene Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans J Cottingham Cambridge University Press 1986, Second Meditation p 22].

This mind is wholly distinct from the body for Descartes. Even though he cannot be “separated from [his] body as [he] could from other bodies”, it is a substance in which the incorporeal mind subsists. The mind then is of his essence (what he is as a human being) while the body is a mechanism that somehow is connected to the mind. The body can of course give him information, but this may be false; if my limb is cut off, I may still have the sensation of pain in it — this, according to Descartes, is more evidence of the unreliability of sensory information and a further reason to make a clear distinction between mind and body. In Descartes’ ‘world’ we can therefore, without doubt, have a res cogitans (a thinking thing) and a res extensa (a thing extended in space). The apprehension of the thing’s extension is space in its ‘calculability’ through mathematics, the reasoning of the mind.

A substance, which is a res extensa, — Descartes in the Principia Philosophiae — is “an entity which is in such a way that it needs no other entity in order to be”. And there are two kinds of substance in the Cartesian world (as we have seen), a res cogitans and a res extensa. What we now have are two ‘present-at-hand’ entities in isolation alongside each other.

When all we have is isolated objects, then the ‘world’ remains hidden and so the being of human beings as Being-in-the-world gets passed over. Even Descartes himself needs God, ‘who is no deceiver’ to put clear and distinct ideas about entities into his mind in order for him not to doubt that they exist. But, now that he has found the foundation of knowledge in the incorporeal mind, Descartes can also explain the possibility of the existence of objects through mathematics and the mathematical.

Descartes begins his Sixth Meditation with, “It remains for me to examine whether material things exist. And at least I know they are capable of existing, in so far as they are the subject matter of pure mathematics, since I perceive them clearly and distinctly”. [Descartes, Rene Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans J Cottingham Cambridge University Press 1986 p 50] In a Cartesian world “that which enduringly remains, really is. This is the sort of thing which mathematics knows. That which is accessible in an entity through mathematics makes up its Being”. [Heidegger Being and Time. We need to recall “mathematics” here means what is “learnable” and what is “teachable”.]

The Cartesian world consists then of these entities which have their kind of being prescribed for them by the human mind. Two present-at-hand entities (such as the thinking being and extended things) cannot be related to each other. We can look at the example of Descartes’ explanation of the attribute of ‘hardness’ as ‘resistance’. Resistance amounts to no more than not yielding place, not changing location. In this way the experience of sensory perception is obliterated and things cannot be then grasped in their Being; what we have instead is two res extensa side-by-side, related to each other by means of mathematical calculation. But “hardness and resistance do not show themselves at all unless an entity has the kind of being which human beings -or at least something living — possesses”. ‘Hardness’ is something that human being encounters in how it experiences the object; hardness is disclosed to human beings in this encountering.

For Descartes, space is a matter of abstract mathematical coordinates and calculations in which things are located and move about; in what we are considering here, space is how human beings experience things. Things are ‘near’ or ‘close-by’ according to what a human being is concerned with at any one time. The pair of glasses on our nose can be considered further away than the object in the ‘distance’ that we want to give consideration to in some way.

Space and spatiality are thus neither in the subject nor in the world, but rather disclosed by human being in its disclosure of the world. It is this ‘disclosure’ of the world that readiness to hand provides. In disclosure, the world is revealed or unveiled (but there already) by human being. In the Cartesian analysis, the world would have to be ‘added on’ to the life of humans, in the way that the body is somehow tacked on to the mind of the human being. In Descartes’ analysis, objects are primarily encountered in a present-at-hand or in an isolated, decontextualized way and the ‘totality of relationships’ that make up the world of human being is not actually encountered and therefore the Being of human beings is not encountered. This lack of ‘world’ is what is lacking in current conceptions of artificial intelligence: its coldness was already presaged in the writings of Descartes, and its aspiration is the flowering of the essence of the Cartesian view of things. AI is what we call “cybernetics”.

The world for Human being is not a series of objects that we can come to know but a web of socially or culturally constituted concernments within which entities can appear as the particular type of object that they are and which must be disclosed in advance of any particular encounter with an object. The example of learning to use the computer — it is in this experience that things such as hardware or software applications or a command instruction can appear as the things they are. Eventually, all these things become inconspicuous as we become absorbed in them and we don’t notice our ‘world’ or the ‘worldhood of the world’. This is why the world tends to get passed over and why priority tends to be afforded to ‘knowing’ as it seems almost more obvious to us. We experience our being in the world as a desire to change the world in the forgetfulness of what is already present.

It is important to emphasize again that it is not that the present-at-hand or decontextualized mode of encountering the world is not a valid one; rather it is a deficient mode and, as such, is not the primary mode we should use in encountering the world. It is deficient in that if this is its only — or at least primary — mode, it cannot account for the ready-to-hand as a ‘grasping’ or of constituting an ‘in-order-to’ and thereby misses both the world as ‘world for human being’ and the human being as a being whose being is an issue for it, i.e. the possibilities it has through practical engagement with the world. The world is experienced as shadows and our ‘thinking’ is a one-track thinking.

Berkeley’s “Esse est percipi”:

George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685-1763), a British philosopher and Anglican bishop, attempted to show that there no such thing as matter. All that could be said to exist were sense perceptions which vary according to which observer is making the observation, the position of the observer, and the circumstances of the observation (such as the amount of light). Such a variety of contradictory sense perceptions (the thing cannot be of different colours, sizes and shapes at the same time) suggests there could not be a real thing there but only a set of sense perceptions (sensations) with no continuing identity. Berkeley suggested that these sense perceptions existed only in the mind; they were mental entities only and could only exist when an observation is made. He considered “To be, is to be perceived” (“esse est percipi”) and that no world existed beyond our sense perceptions.

From Berkeley’s position, what we see varies with the sensory apparatus used to make the observation and the conditions within which the observation is made. If one changes the position of the observer, the shape and colour of things change; if a different sensory apparatus is used, there may not be any colours at all or there may be additional colours that humans are not aware of through their ordinary sense perception. What is seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched varies with the sensory apparatus used and the conditions under which they operate.

Sounds are vibrations in the air, but if there is no air, for example in outer space, no sounds can be heard (the catch line in Ridley Scott’s film Alien: “In space, no one can hear you scream”). The ability of dogs to detect smells and sounds not perceivable by human beings shows that different sensory apparatus will produce different sense data. Tastes appear to vary from person to person and from species to species. What is poisonous to one species may be food for another. Touch varies with the conditions available, for example a cold hand placed in cold (but less cold than the hand) water, will feel warm. The feelings obtained by touch also vary with the part of the body used for the touch as some parts of the body are more sensitive than others. If the sensory apparatus or the conditions of the observation are changed, then different sensations will be produced. This suggests the sensory process involves a relationship between the sensory apparatus, the conditions of observation and whatever, if anything is out there. If any of these are altered different sensations will be produced.

Berkeley’s interpretation is that there is no such thing as matter and that sense perceptions are mental entities only. In order to claim there is no such thing as matter, it would be necessary in some way to go beyond our sense perceptions to see whether matter exists or not. This is something we are not able to do. Equally the claim that what we see (notice that this is only is only dealing with sense perceptions, not with what can be known) are only mental entities is doubtful, when what we see seems to involve a relationship between the sensory apparatus, the conditions of observation and whatever, if anything is out there.

Kant’s Response to Berkeley:

KantWhatever is observed when an observation takes place is sensations. Our measuring devices require ‘sensations’ in order to make their measurements.

Given that the sensations change if different sensory apparatus are used to make the observation suggests there is no single objective reality available to us other than that which can be attained through the mathematical. It may be that such a reality exists, but we can never know it through our sensory apparatus or sense perception. The “what” or the “how” of sense perception does not matter: it is not “knowledge” until it is placed into some kind of mathematical “frame”. Berkeley suggested there was nothing beyond our sense perceptions, while Kant suggested there was “noumena” or the “thing in itself” and stressed the unknowability of the noumena. In effect, Berkeley claimed matter did not exist (i.e. nothing beyond perception i.e. esse est percipi) “to be is to be perceived”, thus an ontological matter, while Kant considered it to be an epistemological matter i.e. we have no way of knowing what is beyond perception except our own “mathematical” projections. This is why the sciences must report their results in mathematical language. The reason as a way of knowing, the essence of the mathematical, is what is ‘reported’.

Berkeley’s position, while rationally consistent, is not psychologically satisfying as an ontological statement and inadequate as an epistemological statement. Our perceptions are not primarily bundles of colours or sounds; what we perceive is already perceived as “some thing,” the accent here being on the word ‘thing’, and therefore it is doubtful whether we gain anything by taking the perceptions instead of the things as the ultimate elements of reality.

If there was nothing beyond perception, perceivers would always, subject to some variation caused by the conditions of observation, perceive the same sensations. Nothing is uniform with sense perception as a way of knowing, and if such uniformity were present, it would tend to produce the same sensations wherever and whenever one looked, while our sensations vary considerably. The uniformity of what is is provided by the modern sense of the mathematical: the uniformity of number grasping the uniformity of matter. Time and space are conceived as uniform mathematical units. The particularity of the categories of the things, their colours, etc. is passed over. (See the unit on Reason as a WOK).

Sensations will vary if you change any of:

  1. the observer or sensory apparatus used (which remains a part of the observer); or
  2. the conditions of the observation; or
  3. the point in space and time from which the observation is taking place

The relationship between the observer, the conditions of observation, and the thing observed will “give” different sensations if you alter any of the observer, the conditions of observation, or the observed.

For Kant, it is necessary to distinguish between phenomena and noumena. The noumena, due to our inability to get past perception, are something we cannot know about: we cannot know “Nature”, but only “Nature” exposed to our method of questioning. What we can be certain of is the “I think”. It is phenomena that constitute “the world” in which we live. Phenomena come in an infinite number of forms and are produced by the inter-relationship of the perceivers’ sensory apparatus, the conditions of observation and whatever, if anything, that lies beyond perception. Phenomena cannot exist without an observation being made. Noumena, according to Kant, exist independently of observers. When one talks about an observer dependant universe, it is phenomena that one is talking about. (Remember that for the Greeks, “phenomena” are those things that are “made” by human beings. In describing only that which is “knowable” as those “things” which we ourselves “make”, then we have an understanding of what Kant meant when he said: “The mind makes the object”.)

The idea of noumena and our inability to perceive the “real world” is consistent with other philosophical theories such as Popper’s falsificationism, Hume’s analysis of cause and effect, and the problem of induction. Each remains embedded and indebted to the history of metaphysics in the West.

Karl Popper

Popper’s falsificationism suggested a scientific theory could never be proved correct but could only be falsified by observations that contradicted the theory. This is because while we can observe phenomena that contradict the theory, we can never look beyond or behind the theory to check whether it was correct as this would involve “observing” the noumena (the mathematical propositions), which is impossible. They are part of the subjectum, not the objectum. They are the looking itself, and the looking cannot give an account of itself within its own look.

David Hume noted that we can never prove cause and effect; all we can do is observe the co-relation of phenomena. We can observe one billiard ball hitting another and the second ball being set in motion, but we can never prove the second ball was set in motion by the first. We can never prove a necessary connection between the first ball hitting the second ball and the second ball being set in motion. We can merely show the one event, (the first ball hitting the second) was followed by the second ball being set in motion. The inability to show the first ball caused the second ball to move is because we can only see the phenomena and we cannot see the noumena.

The problem of induction (inductive logic) is also consistent with the idea of noumena. With induction all we have is repeated examples of the same phenomena in a particular situation, but we can never be certain that in the same situation the phenomena will always be repeated. This is because we are unable to see behind the phenomena to see the cause of the phenomena. This would involve observing the noumena, which cannot be done.

Sense perception and Quantum Physics:

Werner Heisenberg

The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, determined by Werner Heisenberg, concerns the impossibility of obtaining precise measurements of certain pairs of properties of quantum “things”. The example usually given is that of the position (space) and momentum (time) of an electron, the principle stating the more precisely we try to measure the position of an electron the less precisely we will be able to measure its momentum. The principle is sometimes explained on the basis that the only way we can observe an electron’s position is by bouncing photons off it that will tell us the electron’s position. However, the collision between the photon and the electron will disturb the electron’s momentum making it impossible to measure both position and momentum at the same time. This is called the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics.

This, however, is not the full story. The mathematics of quantum theory makes it clear that electrons and other quantum entities simply do not have a precise position and a precise momentum. They may have a precise position but then they will not have any knowable momentum at all, or they may have momentum, but their position will not be knowable. (Gribben, 1984, 157). By observing the quantum entity’s position (space), we observe it as a particle, by observing its momentum (time) we see it as a wave. This means we may measure the quantum entity as a particle and observe its position or as a wave, but it is not possible to see it as a wave and particle at the same time. Both the wave view and the particle view are necessary to understand the quantum world. They can be seen as different sides of the same coin. Any experiment designed to show waves, will show waves, any experiment designed to show particles will show particles, however no experiment will be able to show both wave and particle pictures of the quantum world at the same time.

The consequence of the Copenhagen Interpretation is that the observer plays a critical role in determining how the world is. The behaviour of atoms, electrons and light depend on whether an observation is being made. If it is, then the wave function collapses and they behave as particles. If no observation is made, then electrons, atoms and light behave as waves.

Schrodinger’s Cat and the Paradox of QM on the Macro Level of Perception:

schroedinger catA similar problem at the macroscopic level is revealed by the puzzle of Schrodinger’s cat. Quantum mechanical effects are assumed to apply at macroscopic level as macroscopic objects are made up of quantum entities. Schrodinger’s cat is placed in a chamber with a radioactive substance of which there is a 50% chance one of its atoms will have decayed within an hour. Should the atom decay a Geiger counter will detect this event and cause a hammer to break a flask containing a poisonous gas and so kill the cat.

The common sense view is that after one hour the cat will be either alive or dead. However, the Copenhagen interpretation considers that since the Geiger counter is made up of quantum entities it is subject to the quantum mechanical rules and does not exist until an observation collapses its wave function. It is not until an observer opens the chamber that the wave function of the whole system collapses and the atom may or may not decay, the Geiger counter may or may not detect the radiation, and the hammer may or may not break the flask, and the gas may or may not kill the cat.

Before the observer opens the chamber, the Copenhagen interpretation considered the cat to be neither alive nor dead but to be in suspended animation or a superposition of states. Alternatively, the cat can be considered to be both alive and dead at the same time. Obviously a cat at any one time must be either dead or alive and it certainly cannot be both dead and alive. So, what is happening in the box before it is opened and the wave function collapses? One view is that the cat itself is able to collapse the wave function so the cat is never both alive or dead or in a superposition of states. If there was a human, sometimes called Wigner’s friend, in the box instead of the cat no doubt he or she will collapse the wave function. After an hour when we open the box, Wigner’s friend will either report nothing has happened or we will find the corpse of Wigner’s friend. There is no case of a superposition of states here, but to a human outside the box the superposition of states remains.

If the human opening the box is not actually being observed, if for example the building was sealed off to protect the experiment, then his or her wave function will not have collapsed. To the people outside the building, everything within the building will be in a superposition of states and this situation continues in an infinite regression. Is anyone observing the planet earth to collapse its wave function? Possibly any conscious being will be able to collapse its own wave function, in effect to be self-actualising and to bring itself into existence.

The Schrodinger’s cat paradox is designed to show how ridiculous quantum theory is when applied to the macro-world or the “common sense” world (and Heisenberg has said he spent many nights wandering alone wondering whether the universe was as crazy as it appeared in his experiments). Yet as entities in the macro-world are all made up of quantum entities it would appear that quantum theory must apply in the macro-world. How can a macro entity, like a cat, exist if the quantum entities that make up the cat do not exist? The ridiculousness (and the consequences of arrogance and stupidity) of applying quantum theory to the macro-world was seen in the risk analysis that banks’ “number crunchers” made prior to the collapse of the banking system in 2008 where the probability function of quantum mathematics was used in risk analysis for derivative investments.

Furthermore in the “common sense” world, the phenomenon of superconductivity shows quantum effects operating in the macro world. It is possible to observe quantum effects on macro level instruments such as superconductor rings which may be several centimetres across and are of course made up of a vast number of atoms. This means it is not possible to say the rules of quantum mechanics apply only in the quantum world. (Davies, 1980, 128-129; Lindley, 1997, 176). It appears the same set of rules should apply to both the macro and quantum worlds and the rules that should apply are the quantum rules. So macro level measuring devices such as Geiger counters, bubble chambers, photographic plates, cats and humans should not exist until they are observed.

If one accepts the standard Copenhagen view of the quantum world, quantum entities do not exist until they are observed. If one accepts the standard common sense view of the macro-world, things continue to exist regardless of whether they are being observed. An attempt to accept both views would mean there must be a level where the rules of quantum theory cease to apply and the rules of classical physics begin to apply. It is however hard to pinpoint exactly where this level is and why it should apply. The case is that the laws of classical physics apply to the macro world, but they lack precision. They are not “knowledge” in the traditional way of understanding what “knowledge” is i.e. a certainty about what something is.  Kant’s a priori conditions of time and space are shown not to exist as such in the quantum world.











Personal Knowledge and the Good

Personal Knowledge and the Good

Simone Weil“Things of the senses are real if they are considered as perceptible things, but unreal if considered as goods.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 45)

To understand the statement above, one must see it in the light of Plato. It has been said, with some justice, that every philosopher is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and there is no doubt that Simone Weil is a Platonist and was hostile to Aristotle. What can it mean to say that things such as health and fitness, food and drink, property and progeny, are illusory goods?

We as TOK students wish to look for counterclaims to positions that we have been given in our social and cultural contexts, in our education, for our goal is to attempt to get beyond our Caves. The essence of education is liberation. We wish to stop saying silly Russellian things like ‘God is as incredible as a celestial teapot’, or some other such comments that issue from propagandist ‘scientists’ who in their public speaking have ceased to be scientists and have become sophists at best, or politicians, at their worst. Human beings will have their gods whether they recognize them or not; the goal of liberation or education is to ensure that one is not worshipping false gods.

What we call our ‘personal knowledge’ is the adopting of a position where an ineluctable element of de-cision, a cutting off of reflection and an engaging of the will has been made: one must decide (and, indeed, has decided) what one will believe and how one will live. These decisions are grounded in the choices provided by our ‘shared knowledge’, our Caves. They are the products of what that kind of thinking which the Greeks understood as phronesis establishes. There is no argument, or set of arguments, that definitively establishes or grounds the desired conclusion, or justifies one’s personal way of life; and if one thinks that one has found that argument or set of arguments, then one has decided in favor of that argument or set of arguments without, perhaps, realizing that one has done so. If nothing else, one has decided to leave off investigating the matter. One has chosen, like some of the prisoners in the Cave, to return to the realm of the shadows. In most cases, it is our social and cultural contexts, our ‘shared knowledge’, which grounds our de-cisions and our ceasing to inquire.

What does it mean to say that the world of the senses is the world of shadows in the Cave?

First of all, to call the things of the senses ‘shadows’ does not mean that such things when conceived as goods have no reality whatsoever; the point is rather that they lack absolute reality, according to Plato. When Macbeth, for example, sees a dagger before him, it has a ‘reality’, but its reality is as a shadow; it is the construct of a mind that sees daggers. (The dagger could also be interpreted in a positive sense in that it is the “last warning” to Macbeth before he makes his decision). It is a construction of Macbeth’s de-cision: he is going to kill Duncan. Because the shadows lack an absolute reality, they cannot satisfy us ultimately (as Macbeth’s crime will not ultimately satisfy him). This delusion of desires/needs is the foundation of consumerism and of the society based on the appetites.

The Idea of the Good is that which imparts to things their goodness. For Plato, the Ideas determine the ‘essence’ or the ‘what-ness’ of some thing. Birches, oaks, and larches all share in the idea of ‘treeness’, but the individual tree is not the idea of the tree itself. So with all the things of the world: what is good in them is given by the idea of the Good, but is not the Good itself. Their ‘goodness’ is a shadow of the Good.

Personal Knowledge and Idolatry:

Because human beings are by nature the religious animal in that they are capable of being moved by gods, we can approach the question of personal knowledge via the notion of idolatry. The essence of idolatry lies in the absolutizing of the relative, or of universalizing of the particular. This is, in fact, what Aristotle does in his interpretation and understanding of Plato’s idea of the Good (agathon), and his interpretation of the ideas in general. A finite good becomes an idol when it is treated as if it were an infinite good, i.e., one capable of satisfying our infinite desire. That our desire is infinite is shown by the fact that it is never satisfied by any finite object or series of finite objects. Not even an infinite series of finite objects (novelties or ‘experiences’) could satisfy it since what we really want is not an endless series of finite satisfactions but, though we don’t know it, the absolute good which is the Good itself. This is why our releasement from the chains in the Cave must be done by “force”, and involves some “violence”, and why the experience of this releasement is a painful one.

Ultimately, all desire, all need is the desire or need for the Absolute. A desire or need that understood itself, that was transparent to itself, would understand this fact about itself. But our deluded desire thinks it can find satisfaction in the finite. Therein lies the root of idolatry. We give our love to that which is not deserving of our love. In the West, this need/desire was seen in eros whom the Greeks recognized as a god i.e. infinite. Yet Eros, and our experience of Eros is, curiously, both infinite and temporal.

In the East, the Buddha understood this very well: he saw that desire is infinite in that it desires its own ultimate quenching or extinguishing, its own nibbana (, but that finite quenchings are unsatisfactory in that they only exacerbate desire by giving birth to new desires endlessly. Contrary to the Buddhist belief that all being is suffering, in the West, this has been seen in the figure of eros or need. Both Plato and the Buddha see this desire in the element or metaphor of Fire, a fire that does not extinguish itself. No desire or need is finally sated; each is reborn in a later desire. (See, for example, the discussion of King Lear on the wheel and its relation to the Pythagorean doctrine). This wheel of cyclical desire in Buddhism is the wheel of Samsara ( The more one is driven by the appetites looking for the ultimate satisfaction, the more frustrated one becomes. The desire to consume or possess the Beautiful has been understood mythologically as the ‘fall’ of human beings; it is in our nature to consume/possess because we are the needing beings. We believe that taking something into ourselves will somehow make us whole and our desire/need will find rest.

So Buddha understood the nature of desire or need as infinite in the needing human being. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman (see the following link for a discussion of this difficult concept in Buddhism,) nothing possessing self-nature, (in this he can be distinguished from both Plato and Aristotle who saw in physis a self-nature or essence of what something is) he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire/need itself. Desire as such is at the root of suffering, dukkha, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself. This uprooting is a ‘violence’ that must be present in detachment from the things of the world.

In Buddhist terms, we could say that idolatry is the treating of something that is anatta, devoid of self-nature, as if it were atta, possessive of self-nature. Idolatry arises when some finite foreground object is falsely ascribed the power to provide ultimate satisfaction. This is the conception of knowledge in the sciences; but in our sciences, there is no conception and no place for the world to be seen as beautiful as the world is seen as ‘object’. This de-cision of our sciences is a closing down rather than an opening up of the world of perception.

The distinction between Buddhism and the thinking that originated in the West is that for Socrates and Plato the world is conceived as good. The drawing power of eros is necessary for us to be led to the Good, and this drawing power is the beauty of the world. The world itself is a souvenir, a remembrance or reminder of the ultimate Good of which it is a testimony. Think of it as a photograph of someone we love. The photo is a reminder of the being who draws our love, but is not the real person themselves. This world and all its goods are but a reminder of the ultimate Good itself. Our error lies in mistaking the two as identical.

It is not without reason that the peculiar madness of the lover (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an example) is the taking of the finite for the infinite. For Plato, there is the presence of the Good in all things that are; and this good is given to us through the perception of the Beautiful which, in its erotic power, draws us towards the Good itself. We can mistake the Beautiful for the Good itself, and this is what creates our ‘values’: we value what we consider the beautiful and what we think the beautiful itself to be, as the Good, and we consider this good of our own making since it is we who impose values on things. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no?

According to the Pythagoreans, whether or not the absolute Good exists is not the question: reason suggests that we should love the finite as finite, that our love should be attuned to, and commensurate with, its object or its ‘otherness’. To love the finite as infinite is to go beyond the limits (to attempt to exceed the circumference of the circle) and is, essentially, hubristic. Romeo and Juliet love not ‘wisely’ but ‘too well’. The desire/need that is infinite is such because it is for the Infinite and can only be satisfied in the Infinite. Eros is both god and mediator, both finite and infinite. As a young William Blake would conclude in his text “There is No Natural Religion”: “Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” What Blake has come to realize here is that “ratio” understood as “reason”, or the principle of reason, gives the “eternal recurrence of the Same” (as understood by the German philosopher Nietzsche). To counteract this, the Prophetic character of the imagination was, for Blake, required.


Knowledge and the Knower: What is Knowledge?


What is Knowledge: How do I know ‘x’? How do we know ‘y’?

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

The following writing attempts to direct itself to the new TOK guidelines for May, 2022. The guidelines centre on a core theme (which is obligatory) and two of five choices of optional themes. The Core Themes are: CT1 Me as a knower and a thinker; CT2 My perspectives, biases, and assumptions; CT3 The origins of our values; CT4 Navigating the world; CT5 Detecting manipulative information or ‘spin’. 

In addition to the core theme, the two out of five optional themes are: OT1. knowledge and technology, OT2. knowledge and language, OT3. knowledge and politics, OT4. knowledge and religion, and OT5. knowledge and indigenous societies. How these themes are relevant to our world today and shape our perspectives and identities will be the efforts of these reflections.  Your understanding of these themes will be demonstrated and assessed through the TOK Exhibition. 

TOKQuestionIn order to gain a better understanding of what we mean by knowledge, it is necessary to grasp anew the basic concepts which we use every day and which we “think” we understand. We need to understand what the concepts really mean. What are these “conceptual tools” that we use in our day-to-day lives without consciously thinking about them?

Our understanding of the concepts we use will determine our disposition or orientation, how we will operate towards the objects of our concern in each of the areas or domains of knowledge. From this disposition will arise the particular methodology within which we gain what we have come to call knowledge.

These concepts arise and have risen from our understanding of what we believe truth and language to be; and these understandings of truth and language, in turn, determine what the “framework” for what we call knowledge is to be in each area of knowledge.

When we think about the areas of knowledge, our shared knowledge, we must try to understand how the objects that are our concern in each of these domains of knowledge become visible to us as what they are. This “becoming visible” is what we have come to call “cognition”. How the things show themselves and how we speak about them to each other is what we mean by our ‘personal’ and ‘shared knowledge’; you must “share” your knowledge in the form of an “exhibition” i.e. you must bring this knowledge to “presence”, “to light”. The difficulty for us is that these objects which we view in the areas of knowledge come into view within a pre-determined perspective and within a pre-determined manner/mode of questioning. The purpose of Theory of Knowledge is to lead you to a grasping and understanding of the questioning within your own specific areas of interest and to determine what the real questions are in those areas that you happen to be interested in. The hope is to make questioning a “habit” for you.

We are our ‘shared knowledge’, and this shared knowledge is what we call “History”. That which has come to be called knowledge in the West (and the IB Diploma is a Western education) rests on the foundations of Greek and Latin language and philosophy and does so to such an extent that we, for the most part, are no longer conscious of it. These foundations have become so obvious to us that we think we have nothing further to learn from the Greeks or from the ancients. To understand our shared knowledge is to understand ourselves, but we cannot have a true knowledge of ourselves if this knowledge is held in obscurity. The goal of this striving for an understanding of ourselves is so that we can experience what we ought to be as human beings. What the IB has concluded is that it is to realize the outcomes of the IB Learner Profile. But from where do these outcomes themselves arise and why have they been chosen? When we look at the societies that the “winners” of history have made today, perhaps it is time that we look at the “losers” and see what they had to say and whether we might learn from them.

Five Types of Knowledge:

In the West, the ancient Greeks distinguished between five types of knowledge: 1. Knowledge as wisdom or knowledge of the first things and of the whole (sophia), and this is sometimes called ‘divine knowledge’ or ‘understanding’; 2. Theoretical knowledge (episteme or what the Greeks, Aristotle in particular, referred to as ‘science’ which is from the Latin word for ‘knowledge’); 3. Expertise or ‘know how’ (techne) which allows one “to feel at home in something”; 4. “Common sense” or that knowledge which pertains to one’s own self-interest; circumspection or insight into one’s own self-interest (phronesis) which derives from ‘experience’; and 5. Intellectual knowledge (nous or noetic knowledge, intelligence: that knowledge which is the result of our ‘perceptual discernment’). In our Theory of Knowledge course, all these types of knowledge come into play in one form or another. The types of knowledge are not isolated but involve one or more of the other types of knowledge depending upon what is being considered and how what is being considered is disclosed or known to us through our various ways of knowing or through our cognitions.

In previous years in TOK, the description of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ related to intellectual or noetic knowledge and was derived from Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus which is a dialogue focusing on the questioning of how sense perception is a way of knowing i.e. what has come to be called “empiricism” in later centuries. (Empiricism comes from the word emperia or what we translate as “experience”.) Perhaps this definition of knowledge was chosen because of our emphasis on sense perception or ‘empiricism’ as a way of knowing which was given to us from the logical positivism that dominates American and British institutions of higher learning today. Plato’s Theaetetus is but one part of a trilogy of dialogues: the Sophist and the Statesman comprise the other two. The three dialogues and their questions must be viewed as a whole, but this is another matter.

We wish to gain a wider view of what knowledge means and what it means to possess or ‘grasp’ knowledge than this single understanding of ‘justified true belief’ and to get a better understanding of what are the Greek roots of our ‘shared knowledge’.

Sophia as Knowledge:

  1. Wisdom or sophia is knowledge of the ‘first things’, the beginnings of things and, thus, knowledge of the whole. In Plato’s allegory of the Cave the first “thing” (although it is not a ‘thing’ in any sense), and that which is responsible for all things, is the Good or agathon. This is represented in the allegory through the metaphor of the Sun. The philosopher is a philo sophia, a friend or a lover of wisdom. So the philosopher, according to Plato, is a lover or friend of the Good, or of the divine, or the first things. To be a friend or lover of someone or something requires that one first “know” that person or thing; it is not coincidence that in ancient times to have sex with someone was “to know” that person; ‘knowing’ involves direct, intimate contact. The Good in Plato’s allegory is represented as that towards which all things, including human beings, strive; for in their striving they hope for a completeness or ‘that for which they are fitted’, their essence. We call this completeness “perfection”.

In this view, all things have a final purpose (telos in Greek) and that purpose is the achievement of their completeness or their essence, what they are. An acorn strives to become an oak, for it is in being an oak that it achieves its essence, its completeness, its perfection. The acorn cannot become an oak unless it is ‘nurtured’ with water and light; water and light do not make an oak but they do ‘help the acorn along’ to become an oak. The essence of some thing arrives at the last and, yet, is paradoxically present in its beginning. The Greeks had a saying: “The future comes to meet us from behind”. What they meant by that saying is that the future’s flowering is its realization of its essence which was contained in its past. For example, our technological gadgets, our hand phones and computers, are the completedness of the technological viewing which is their essence. The essence of technology is nothing technological.

For we moderns, there is no final purpose to things so there is no ‘wisdom’ to be obtained as understood by the Greeks; the Good and its offspring are what we “value”. “Things” have no “essence”. Things and the future will be what we make them to be; the world and the things about us are to be looked upon and changed to meet our needs; we human beings will determine the essence of some thing as good for our purposes. Nothing is good in and of itself. Our closest approximation to wisdom is a combination of the knowledge provided in ‘techne’ and our knowledge of ‘common sense’ which we achieve through experience or praxis, action. The modern French philosopher, J. P. Sartre, stated: “Existence precedes essence”; that is, what some thing will be will be determined by ‘choices’ human beings make in the present that will lead to outcomes for which they, as a human being, are responsible. This is why Sartre’s existentialism has been called a ‘humanism’ for its focus is entirely on human beings.

For the ancients, the person of wisdom, the ‘wise’ person, has knowledge of the Good as that which occasions or is responsible for the things that we experience in this world and is that towards which he or she must strive. He or she has attained this knowledge through the theoretical which is a two-fold way of ‘looking’ upon things. More will be said below about the theoretical and its manner of ‘viewing’ or ‘looking upon’ and ‘being looked upon’. For the Greeks, the completeness or perfection of a human being is to contemplate the whole of things (the ‘first’ things) through the theoretical viewing, and to live well in communities (using phronesis or ‘common sense’) based on this knowledge of the first things which gives us knowledge of what we, as human beings, are ‘fitted for’. For the Greeks, the human being is the zoon logon echon: “the animal possessing language” or, perhaps, “the animal possessed by language”. More will be said later about the importance of language as a way of knowing in defining what the essence of human being is.

You will notice that in the allegory of Plato, the philosopher is required to return to the Cave even though it is not his wish to do so. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave He would prefer to simply ‘look upon’ the Good. This returning is prescribed by the limits placed on human beings by the Good. It is the Good which delimits/defines and provides the limits for what human beings are fitted. Human beings are mortal and limited; the Good is immortal and eternal. The philosopher cannot be a monk or a hermit even though the philosopher renounces all ‘practical’ goals and particular goods. He or she is required to be a participant in the society of which they are a member. Wisdom is a curious or ambiguous combination of theoretical and practical knowledge for the ancients. We shall have to try to sort out this ambiguity as we go along our path to thinking about knowledge.

To the wise person, what we understand as evil is not the opposite of good, but the absence or deprivation of the good. A person who is not a good or virtuous person (arête in Greek is ‘virtue’ and we have translated this word as ‘excellence’; agathos is “the good person”) is not capable of sophia. Metaphorically and literally, this is understood as the absence of light or the choice of refusing to see the light for what it is (the “light” is that which limits or that which delimits and defines) and choosing its opposite instead; we could even say that our modern world is a denial of the light as light. We will later discuss how this relates to human freedom. Macbeth is a play which illustrates most beautifully the principles elucidated here; but all tragedies involve this inability or refusal to perceive the light as it is given in one form or another. The quote from the TOK Guide that begins this piece is an attempt to define what the light is and how the light works in our day-to-day discussions i.e. how the light “brings to light” or presence.

It should be noted that it is the light which first ‘uncovers’ the things and allows the things to be ‘seen’ and, thus, known. “Uncoveredness” or disclosure is for the Greeks aletheia which has been traditionally translated as ‘truth’. What the truth is conceived to be is prior to theory and the theory is prior to the practice. When we deny truth as ‘uncoveredness’, we likewise deny what was understood as the ‘theoretical’ for the ancients; and we transform the theoretical to another understanding of what it once was. For the ancient Greeks, if they could see us, we would be viewed as a tragic people.

Theory as Knowledge:

  1. Theoretical knowledge comes from a complex number of ideas. On the one hand, théa means ‘look’, ‘sight’ and hora means ‘to see’, ‘to bring to sight’. Thea as ‘sight’ is that which allows the look of something to be seen and is connected to eidos (form) which is the ‘outward appearance’ of some thing. For Plato, the eidos is eternal or permanent; the theoretical looks upon the permanent things, upon their essence. The ‘treeness’ of a particular tree is that which is present and permanent in all trees and allows us to see the tree as a tree. The theoretical person is the one who looks upon something as it shows itself, who sees what is given to see. From this word comes our word “theatre”, and the theoros is the spectator who goes to the great festivals and dramas to ‘see’ and ‘to be seen’.

The other complex of ideas associated with theoretical is that of the root theo which is to look upon the divine, to look upon the eternal things. For the Greeks, however, this looking was not one way: the theoretical was also how the divine looked upon us so that we are given a sight of the eternal things, or the first things (archai), and this giving of the sight of the divine was a ‘gift’. So, for the Greeks, the theoretical is both the god’s looking upon us, which comes first, and our response to that look (theo=divine, horao=the disclosive looking back). The proper response on our part was, initially, a contemplative, pious, thankful ‘looking back’ in response to the god’s look upon us. To be a spectator at the theatre for a Greek was to have both the god looking upon them and their response to the god’s looking; to be a participant or spectator at the Greek theatre was to take part in a religious activity similar to our participation and attitudes when we go into our churches, temples or mosques. There were no ‘fourth walls’ in the Greek theatre. The whole conception of a ‘fourth wall’ in theatre may, indeed, be a product of modern fantasy.

The connection between the Greek understanding of the theoretical and the modern understanding is that in the modern the theory encompasses the first principles, the first things, which determine the procedures and experiments or experience of the things that are, the re-search; this is what the Greeks understood as techne.  For us, the dominant first principle is the principle of reason. The things are required to ‘come to light’, to ‘come to sight’, within the principle of reason which establishes the validity of the other first principles e.g. the principle of contradiction, etc. The great achievement of quantum physics, for instance, is the discovery that things don’t quite come to ‘sight’ in the manner in which we expected them to under this manner of viewing.

Techne as Knowledge:

  1. Techne as understood by the Greeks is the manner in which human beings accomplish practical tasks. Techne as knowledge is a combination of the theoretical, the practical or phronesis, and the intellectual or the noetic, what we understand as “intelligence”. Techne is not the application of some more basic knowledge but is itself the most basic knowledge, namely, the understanding of what it means to be at all and it includes both the arts and the sciences. But techne is a “human-centred” knowledge or ‘know-how’, or so we have come to believe from the traditions of our shared knowledge. Perhaps the Greeks understood techne as something different…

For example, science is but one application of modern technology or techne. Science is the re-search motivated by the self-disclosure of the essence of beings/things as orderable through calculation. That is, in our seeing or viewing (our theory), the things of the world (including ourselves) present themselves to us as something which can only be understood (and are only allowed to be understood) as calculable and orderable. Science presupposes this understanding of the Being of beings, how beings are, what their essence is, and so science presupposes modern technology or techne, which in itself is nothing other than the theory of beings/things as essentially calculable. In turn, science itself can be applied, and that application issues in a certain sophisticated manipulation of beings, which is “technology” in the usual sense as we understand it, namely, “the mechanical ordering of beings”. From where does this theory of beings as orderable through calculation arise? How does this theory or manner of seeing lead to modern science and to modern, high-tech machinations? (OT 2)

Modern technology is the theory, the viewing, that arises when human beings no longer experience themselves as ‘the looked upon’. Human beings become the ‘subjects’ and the world and its beings are regarded as ‘objects’. In the West, the view of Nature and Being that was present in Judaism and Christianity was, in part, responsible for this change (although in the Western Bible there is no word for what we could possibly understand as Nature). When human beings made the decision to attempt to control and commandeer necessity and chance (Nature), then the oblivion of eternity, the disappearance of the gods, followed.

Common Sense as Knowledge:

  1. Phronesis or “common sense”/”practical knowledge” is defined by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, in Book VI chapter 5 of his Nichomachean Ethics as belonging to the human being who “can deliberate appropriately” over “that which is good (full and perfect) which is, in addition, good for himself”. The object of knowledge or what is to be known can be something else like that of techne, but its relation is to the deliberator or thinker himself (I believe the term we use unthinkingly today for this is ‘subjective’). In contrast, the deliberation or thinking of techne relates or contributes to the production of something else either for oneself or for another and aims at a perfection that is not possible with “phronetic” or practical knowledge. There are no perfect or complete actions. The aim of techne is the production of, say, a house or a gadget and the search is for the ‘perfect house’ or the perfect technological gadget. There is no such thing as the perfect or complete action.

The primary distinction between the ancient understanding and the modern understanding of what a “practical” human being is is that for Aristotle, the excellence or completeness to be arrived at for the “practical” human being is the right and proper way to be a human being. For Aristotle, ethics is action, not theory. The goal was sophrosyne or knowledge of the whole of practical action. This has become understood as ‘balanced’ in the IB Learner Profile attributes. This sophrosyne is the deliberation or reflection prior to what is to be achieved in action. Proper action requires both self-knowledge and knowledge of one’s limits.

We see an example of false “phronetic” deliberation illustrated in Macbeth Act 1 sc. vii in Macbeth’s “If it t’were done when ‘tis done…” speech. Macbeth is lost in his calculations of the costs and benefits of his proposed action (the killing of King Duncan) rather than in his deliberations of the source or ground of the action itself. He does finally arrive at the ground at the end of the speech when he says “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent…”, and he appears to resolve not to do the deed i.e. to kill King Duncan. Macbeth is a great soldier and the savior of his country: he is ‘well-fitted’ for this; he is “Bellona’s bridegroom”. He is “ill-fitted” to be a king and this is captured in the play’s continual repetition of clothing motifs, both those fitting and that apparel which is ill-fitted.

To say that we live in a non-phronetic age would be understatement. Nike’s slogan of “Just Do It” captures our lack of deliberation and judgement when it comes to our actions.

Intelligence as Knowledge:

  1. Intellectual knowledge is that knowledge which is associated with our ways of knowing, primarily sense perception, reason, language and intuition. In Greek the term used is nous or mind. For the Greeks, noetic knowledge (intelligence) produces pistis or belief and, thus, we have our former TOK definition of knowledge as ‘justified, true belief’. This understanding of knowledge is derived from a combination of language, sense perception and reason. Notice that nous is placed last in order of importance for the Greeks; for us, of course, it is placed first.

In Greek, the word for language is logos. Logos became translated as ratio, which became further understood as “reason” by the Latins; and our word ‘logic’ is the derivative of this translation.  Logic is but one aspect of reason. One can think of the many associations that the word logos itself has in our modern usage. Think of all of your subjects of study: ‘bio-logy’, ‘psycho-logy’, ‘anthropo-logy’, etc. Language as ratio, in all its complexities, is our mode of access to the things that are and is the ground of our ‘shared knowledge’. (OT 1)

Let us try to grasp an understanding of noetic knowledge or intelligence as determined in language by examining the statement “The book is on the table”.  First, the thing (book) must be given to me to be addressed (cognition) and it must be addressed in speech i.e. its being communicable to others is the purpose of the addressing. Second, what is addressed is ‘the book’; this is the content of the statement. Third, there is what the book itself says of itself, how it answers our question of what it is i.e. it is a book and it is on the table. Fourth is our way of saying, the statement, the proposition: the book is on the table; either it is or it isn’t. Fifth is the structure of the addressedness itself i.e. the structure of what is addressed insofar as it is addressed. Here we have the subject: the book, and the predicate i.e. what is stated about the book i.e. it is ‘on the table’.  In the determination of language as an addressing of some thing as some thing, we should note that the thing addressed as some thing is 1) addressed as a thing; it is brought to a concrete stand or presence: it is a book and not a coffee cup; 2) in the addressing of some thing as some thing, the ‘as some thing’ refers to its universal and not its particular character trait. It is a book and there are many other things that can be called ‘books’.

The French philosopher Simone Weil once stated: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Love.” In contrast, we would say: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Reason”. How does our experience of the world, our being-in-the-world, change when we express our ‘faith’ in our experience as enlightened by Love or when we believe our experience is enlightened by Reason? While what we mean by both Love and Reason are somewhat abstract concepts, surely the less controversial statement is the second. Could this be because we have relegated our understanding of Love to simply a biological necessity for ourselves as human beings, and this relegation of Love to the biological was based on our “Reason” in order for Reason to dominate?

What is “Shared Knowledge”?

Being/non-being, truth/semblance, knowledge/opinion, concept/assertion, value/non-value are basic concepts: what, in fact, do they mean? How are truth and semblance visible at all? Being and non-being? Where do we find and appropriate or grasp these types of things?

One of the most basic questions we are faced with in trying to understand our ‘shared knowledge’ is how do we attain a ground upon which to view our shared knowledge? How do we know ‘y’? How do I know ‘x’? (CT 1)

We stress ‘lived experience’ as the ground of our personal knowledge, but what, in fact, is “lived experience”? We might say that lived experience is composed of acts of judgement, of knowledge. How do these actions really appear? What has come to us as our “shared knowledge” pre-determines the manner in which objects come into view, how they will be viewed, and how they will be questioned. In TOK we want to take steps towards bringing into view for the first time the matters that are at issue for us and to provide an understanding of them. In coming to understand our “shared knowledge”, we come to understand ourselves i.e. we are our shared knowledge; we are our past. We understand ourselves when we gain knowledge of what we ought to be as human beings.  It is the Socratic dictum “Know thyself” and our striving is for the perfectibility of what we are as a human being.


Our ways of knowing are our accesses and our relationships to the beings/ things/ entities around us. Our ways of knowing disclose things as “such and such” and allow us to take possession, to grasp, to appropriate what is disclosed. This disclosure is what we call the “true”. The knowledge which comes about once we have grasped things “expresses” itself and grounds itself in the assertion. The assertion is what we have come to call the “truth”. For the Greeks, the “expression” of something is what they termed logos and it can mean the “saying”, “what is said”, and the “about that which is what is said”. These sayings all involve relations. We will explore this term logos in greater depth, for an understanding of it is crucial to an understanding of most of the concepts that are used throughout our discussions here and the discussions which you have in your TOK classes. (OT 1)

The concept of truth provides information about what knowledge is and truth’s relation to beings/things. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, truth is “judgement”, the determination of the ‘true’ or ‘false’ of things. The word in Greek for “truth” is a-letheia. The a-privative of the Greek language indicates that for the Greeks, contrary to what we understand the truth to be as a positive, truth was not something positive. The world as experienced does not disclose itself openly. What was originally “uncovered” becomes hidden or distorted by speech. “Opinions” become truisms so that what was originally disclosed is covered up again. “Idle talk” hides truth and idle talk abounds in our social media and public discourse. For an ancient Greek, what we would call our ‘shared knowledge’ is only so much ‘idle talk’. The “publish or perish” syndrome that rules at our academies of learning creates only so much obfuscation and confusion so that the “original” things become covered up by so much “novelty”—unthought novelty. Nietzsche once said: “The scholars dig up what they themselves buried.”

Aletheia is the “uncovering” or “unconcealment” which brings beings/ things/ entities into “presence” and from this presence the “what” and the “how” of things can be determined. This disclosure of things is a manner, a way of being of human beings i.e. what we conceive the truth to be determines what we conceive ourselves to be as human beings. This disclosure is first achieved through language. (OT 1)

Language and Truth:

For the Greeks, human being is “the animal possessing language” (zoon logon echon). This feature distinguishes human beings from all other beings. Connected to this “speaking” is arithmos “counting”, but not a counting understood as “one, two, three” but a “counting on” something i.e. the design, the plan. Number develops from this “counting on” something. What distinguishes the language of human beings from that of other animals can be shown in the following simple example. I can say to my dog Lola, “Lola, walkies!”, and Lola will fetch me her leash. I cannot say to Lola, “Naughty dog! Go fetch me three newspapers so that I can clean up!” Only human beings know what a three means and this is what distinguishes our language from that of other animals and distinguishes us from other animals.

“Psyche” is the living presence of something alive. It is the Greek word for “soul”, and in the myths Psyche is married to the god Eros. Life itself is movement, kinesis, the coming to presence of some alteration. Every thought, every action is a movement of some kind. Speaking is a vocalizing which says something understandable about the world. Our speaking is a mode of psyche, a way of being alive. For the Greeks, language was connected to the soul; for us, of course, language is connected to the “mind” and is understood as “information” from which our “intelligence” derives. “Psyche-ology” is a modern subject.

“Truth” is understood as comportment or a way of being of human beings to the world and to itself in which the beings/ things of the world are present in conformity with the way they are. “Universal validity” has nothing to do with truth. Something can very well have universal validity and be binding for human beings universally and still not be true (“justified, true belief”). Most prejudices and things taken as obvious have such universal validity and yet they may distort things/ beings i.e. the current understanding of technology, for instance, is a very good example. (CT 5) On the other hand, something can be true which is not binding for everyone but only for a single individual. This does not mean that truth is “subjective” or relative. We are not the providers of the light which “unconceals” things.

For us today, theoretical knowledge has become mathematical knowledge, “algebraic calculation”, and only what approximates the evidence proper to mathematics is considered ultimately true. This is the dominating “principle of reason” which operates in our cognition, our awareness of the world and the things in it. Physics must report itself mathematically because of this principle of reason. But this is but one particular way of perceiving the world and the things within the world. This will be discussed in our reflections upon Reason.