Theory of Knowledge: Key Concepts:
“The following 12 concepts have particular prominence within, and thread throughout, the TOK course:
evidence, certainty, truth, interpretation, power, justification, explanation, objectivity, perspective,
culture, values and responsibility. Exploration of the relationship between knowledge and these concepts can help students to deepen their understanding, as well as facilitating the transfer of their learning to new and different contexts.”–Theory of Knowledge Guide, 2022
The understanding of key concepts and terms is crucial to success in TOK. It is from our understanding lit. a ‘standing under’ or ‘what stands under’ or ‘grounds’ and provides a base to the key concepts that our knowledge is ’produced’ or ‘brought forward’. It is the questioning of these grounds regarding whether or not they are truly grounds that is the foundation of the Theory of Knowledge course. Below are précis of the basic concepts used in TOK. Each would require a separate blog in order to explore them in their full possibilities of meaning.
Initially in the West, it was understood that words and their meanings were historical in nature while language itself was ahistorical. From language (logos) and its grammatical rules arose what we understand as “logic”: while grammar related to “right speaking”, “logic” related to “right thinking”. Both language and “logic” were considered ahistorical until the thinking of the French philosopher Rousseau. It was Rousseau who first pronounced that language and reason were historical and that human beings themselves were historical animals. We ourselves dwell within this stunning paradigm shift with our belief in the “modification” theories of evolution from Charles Darwin and others.
Philosophical English is Latinate in origin and the Latin is, usually, a translation of the original concept from the Greek. So, for example, the Greek word “logos” is translated by the Latin “reor” or “ratio” and from this human beings come to be understood as the “animale rationale“, the “rational animal”. The Greeks determined human beings to be the “zoon logon echon“, the animal capable of speech or discourse, the speech that related human beings to their world and to other human beings. It was this speech which distinguished human beings from other living beings. You and I are capable of reading this blog; Fido, the dog, cannot. These different definitions of the Greeks and the Latins have given rise to many various interpretations of what human beings are and illustrate the difficulty of not only translation, but also of trying to determine the historical meanings of our basic concepts. Concepts are the grounds (the principles, the beginnings, the archai) from which our understanding derives, and the results we achieve and the conclusions we reach regarding things are given beforehand in the manner in which we approach the things of the world e.g. physics must report itself mathematically since it is the mathematical that determines its beginnings and the logos from which it originates.
Below are given some basic approaches to how we may determine the nature of our basic concepts and how we have come to de-fine or “set the limits” or “horizons” to our understanding of them. An “horizon” is that open space within which something dwells and its limits define what that something is.
Certainty relates to the belief that what we hold is truly the case regarding some thing be it an object, situation or condition, and that what it is is its actuality or reality. Certainty relates to the correspondence theory of truth and its establishment and grounding through the principle of reason. For certainty to be held, that about which an assertion is “certain” about must be shared or “rendered” to others i.e. experiments must be repeatable, hypotheses must be supported by evidence and handed over to others. This rendering has been called logos from which the concept of “logic” is derived. Reason is, and has been, understood as logic. Certainty results when the reasons are considered sufficient reasons for some thing being as it is and they are are handed over to others. Without the handing over, verification cannot take place and so the assertion remains merely “subjective” as an assertion.
The requirement of certainty is founded upon “doubt”. If we do not doubt or if we are not skeptical regarding assertions that are made we would not need certainty. The requirement for certainty in knowledge comes to the fore in Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum: while I may not be certain of objective truth, I am certain that it is I who is doubting and it is I who is doing the thinking. Doubt is the first step to thought for Descartes and as such it is a way of being in the world, an ontology. Opposed to this view was “trust”. The Greeks trusted in the goodness of the world initially and then doubted assertions made regarding that world. This trust in the world allowed the Greeks to have moral certainty regarding the virtues of various human actions within the world and to establish a hierarchy of what was best for human beings. We, today, have no such hierarchy because we have no such certainty. We are exhorted to appeal to the “fact-value distinction”, that assertions of fact cannot be the same as assertions of value.
In our self-knowledge we may have psychological certainty regarding the way things are and this certainty is based on resoluteness and will. If one examines the views of the followers of Donald Trump in the USA, we can see that psychological certainty can sometimes be false but that does not affect the belief in the certainty of things that his followers hold and their relation and importance to those followers. Those who attack the followers of Trump do so on the basis of the principle of reason and its realization in the correspondence theory of truth. This is sometimes called epistemic certainty, that certainty which stems from what is understood as “knowledge”. However, whether the views are those of the ‘right’ or of the ‘left’, the drive to certainty produces ‘intolerance’ towards what is outside of those viewpoints. This intolerance is a reflection of the belief that all ‘values’ are subjective and that reason and science cannot provide us with the ‘objective’ certainty of those values. While it was initially hoped that ‘tolerance’ would be the product of this viewpoint, the opposite is what occurs in fact. Followers of Trump accept the QAnon belief that Democrats are pedophiles and Satanic cult worshippers. Such views are modifications of those held by the Germans of the Jews in the 1930s which ultimately led to the European Holocaust.
Culture: The word “culture” is a relatively new word in our language arriving in the 19th century. As with all words, their meaning is to be determined from the social contexts and conditions from which they arose. Why and of what are we speaking when we use the word “culture”? Culture is a very general term and indicates the thinking and actions that social groups share and these, in turn, determine the thoughts and actions of the individuals within those groups. In some instances, it is referred to as a “mindset”. What are these “mindsets” and from where do they originate?
In 19th century German philosophy, the word weltanschauung arrived from two words: welt or “world”; and anschauung meaning “view”, “view of”, “outlook on the world”. The world Weltbild also arrived, meaning “world-picture” or “a picture of the world”. These two words, like our words “culture” and “civilization”, do not mean the same thing. A “world-picture” is usually associated with science or a science such as “a physicist’s world-picture” or the “mechanistic world-picture”, while a “world-view” can be pre-scientific or scientific. A “world-picture” is usually a theoretical view of the external world while a “world-view” is “a view of life”, a view of our position in the world and how we should act. Adherents to the same “world-picture” may hold different “world-views” and enter into war using the weapons supplied by their common “world-pictures”, as is the case with many conflicts in the world today. A world-picture is only one constituent of a world-view.
A world-view may be personal, individual, expressing one’s own particular life experiences and opinions or it may be total, extinguishing all personal opinions. We can see variations of these among populist movements operating in various countries throughout the world.
The modern world-picture in the West involves mathematical science, machine technology, the reduction of art to an object of experience, human activity as culture and as the realization of “values” (civilization), the concern in politics for a ‘cultural policy’, an atheism that co-exists with the secularized Christianity and intense religious experience. We conceive of the world as picture and we are ‘in’ the picture or we conceive of the world as text, something that requires interpretation. The world is captured within a frame. Things as a whole are now taken in such a way that they are beings only insofar as they are presented by human beings, the representer and producer.
What is called the age of humanism arrives simultaneously with the world conceived as picture. The English poet William Blake captures it in his poem “The Tyger”: “What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”. A picture requires a frame, in the case here, a system. Ancient and medieval human beings did not have a world-picture. They did not consider themselves as subjectum nor did they consider themselves the centre of beings and that the world they experienced needed to be explained and assessed in terms of human beings and with a view to human beings. The whole picture and anything in it is within the control of human beings so we can start with a clean slate and remake everything anew.
Culture and civilization are two words that are used interchangeably at times. They are not the same. A culture provides the open space that allows the artefacts of civilization to come into being. We speak of the ancient Egyptian civilization and we can recognize the artefacts that have come down to us from it. Archeologists then search for the ‘culture’ that allowed the civilization to come into being, Egyptian mathematics, religion and politics for instance.
We can speak of technological civilization and technological culture in the following way. The instruments and gadgets of technological civilization are brought into being by the technological culture which provides the open space for their realization and production. There are no computers and hand phones without the technological culture that requires them, and in the future, they will be looked upon as evidence of technological civilization.
Experience: ‘Experience’, like all basic words, changes its meaning over history. What counts as “experience” at a given period depends on a prior interpretation of the world that is not itself derived from or vulnerable to experience. Such an interpretation is derived through language and what is shared among human beings. We believe we know that what we have ‘experienced’ in our privacy is true for us, and we seek verification from others to justify our interpretation and understanding of those events from others whether in formal settings such as controlled experiments or in the informal settings of social chat groups. But those interpretations are based on an interpretation of the world and the events in it that is prior to our own personal experience and knowledge.
There are many different types and kinds of events that we call “experience”. For example, many Americans might say “that was quite an experience” when they speak about the Trump administration in the future and this would be referring to their own internal ‘feelings’ with regard to various events that occurred in their country. The strife and divisiveness brought about by different world views will produce quite different interpretations of the experience of the last few years.
Experience can refer to things/events both internal and external. Externally we can ‘go forth’ and travel, or learn, hear of, find out. We can also undergo something similar to the example provided above and learn from such an experience. We usually call such knowledge learned from experience “common sense” and this type of knowledge is distinguished from the knowledge gained by “theoretical experience” or science. The Greeks called theoretical knowledge episteme and they distinguished it from techne or “know how” or “knowing one’s way in and around” something. The knowledge gained from everyday experience was called phronesis and this kind of knowledge assisted in living within communities among other human beings. Mature individuals have knowledge from phronesis; those who are not mature do not. This knowledge has evolved into what we call “emotional intelligence” today, but the Greeks saw “emotion” as the way in which we disclose the world about us and not as something primarily subjective and individual.
We first encounter the world passively 1: we come across something without going in search of it. In active experience, we ‘go forth’ to look for something.
We go to something to see (perhaps with artificial aids such as microscopes) what happens to it under varying conditions, either waiting for the new conditions to arise or intervening to produce them. The word “experiment” is derived from the word “experience”: we intervene in something to see what happens, if we do such and such, only now we do so in ‘anticipation of regularity, e.g. when so much – then so much’. The modern experiment essentially involves ‘exact’ measurement. Objects are shorn of their essences and regarded as mere individuals conforming to mathematical regularities. These regularities determine in advance what counts as objective. Scientists do not conduct exact experiments to discover whether nature conforms to mathematical regularities; they do so because they presuppose a projection of nature as mathematical. Experiment in this sense is quite different from ‘experience’: ‘science becomes rational-mathematical, i.e. in the highest sense, not experimental’. ‘Experiment’ and ‘experience’ were once contrasted with the medieval practice of examining authorities and previous opinions. Now they are contrasted with mere observation and description, guided by no mathematical ‘anticipation’.
The issue between competing scientific theories, for example, cannot always be settled by ‘experience’: One cannot say that Galileo’s doctrine of the free fall of bodies is true and that of Aristotle, who holds that light bodies strive upwards, is false, for the Greek conception of the essence of body, of place and of their relationship depends on a different interpretation of beings and therefore engenders a different way of seeing and examining natural processes. This is an instance of the general idea that our ‘mode of access’ or way of knowing as a manner in which we ‘experience’ a type of entity, e.g. atoms or historical figures, varies with our prior conception of their being i.e. our understanding of what, how and why they are as they are. ‘The truth of a principle can never be proved from its result for the interpretation of a result as a result is conducted with the help of the principle, presupposed, but not grounded’. Our interpretations of what we call knowledge is based on the principle of reason but it is not grounded in every case.
The Greek fundamental experience of the being of beings, which underlay and gave rise to both the subject-predicate form of their language, its grammar and their conception of a thing as a subject with accidents or qualities, indicates the priority of the understanding of the being of beings that first determines what we believe knowledge to be and how we experience the world and thus our arrival at what our understanding of experience may be.
Explanation: An explanation is a statement to others which describes the “how” and the “why” of things, their causes, conditions and contexts, and the results or consequences of what we have determined to be “facts”. The statement or account must make something clear, bring it to light; and because it deals with “truth” by bringing to light, it may establish rules or laws or bring to light already established rules and laws in relation to the object or phenomenon under discussion or examination.
In dealing with the question of “how”, an explanation makes something clear or easy to understand. It is a ‘telling’ and ‘a showing’ or a reason for or a cause of something. It is related to the Greek logos or speech. You use it in your Exhibition; and the word “ex-hibition” itself means “a showing forth”, a “bringing out of hiding” and that which is responsible for the bringing out of hiding. To bring something out of hiding is to reveal it and this is what the Greeks meant by “truth”.
What is responsible for the bringing out of hiding is the principle of reason. We begin our statements with “be-cause”, “the cause is”, so that the statement becomes a “showing forth” of the “why”. The statements make the “ex-hibition” become an “ex-position” such as an experiment in science or an interpretation of a poem or a work of art.
Evidence: Evidence is the requirement of the principle of sufficient reason to “justify”, “explain” or “render an account of ” things, conditions and situations in order to establish and ground their truth or their correspondence to “reality” for being what, how and why they are as they are. Evidence is the demand that things give an account of themselves for being what and as they are in order to justify assertions and judgements made regarding them. Whether it is the assertions and judgements you make regarding the objects in your Exhibition, or your assertions or thesis statements of your essay, your demands of your teachers or your parents, ‘sufficient reasons’ have to be given to account for things and situations as they are given to you in your day-to-day lives.
We may speak of empirical evidence as that “information that verifies the truth (which accurately corresponds to reality) or falsity (inaccuracy) of a claim.” As we have written elsewhere, the “data” which is placed in a “form” so that it may “inform” and become “information”, is carried and made renderable to others and for others through the principle of reason. In the empiricist view, one can claim to have knowledge only when based on empirical evidence: the thing must be “brought to presence” before one. Think of this in relation to your Exhibition. You must “ex-hibit”, or “bring out of hiding” and “hold to view” so that it will be able to stand and be seen by others.
In our writing on David Hume, we have shown that he uses the principle of reason to question the principle of reason in empirical observations. Evidence does not give certainty but it does provide confidence in our beliefs that things are as we believe them to be; it provides justification for our believing that things are the way that they appear to be for us. Evidence provides for us our interpretation of what we call facts.
Interpretation: What we commonly mean by “interpretation” is to provide an “explanation” for some thing that appeals to reason and to common sense. An interpretation is meant to bring some thing to presence in order for it to show what, how and why it is as it is. In Group 1 and Group 6 subjects, you are asked to provide an “interpretation” of a work of art, whether a novel, a poem or painting for instance, and in doing so name it as “such-and-such” or “so-and-so”. In the Human Sciences attempts are made to find fixed, permanent interpretations of social life which attempt to understand what is present at all times and in all places when living in communities, while in the Natural Sciences “explanations” are looked for through experiments.
Our lives are pervaded by interpretations both of ourselves and of other entities and things. Our “Core Theme” seeks to interpret how we understand ourselves, while our “Optional Themes” seek to understand other entities in the world around us. Our everyday interpretations or awareness of things is prior to our systematic interpretations undertaken in the Human Sciences and prior to our explanations provided by and given in the Natural Sciences. You need to find your way to the library or the science lab and interpret the contents in those places as books or science equipment before doing any science or reading. When you walk into a classroom, you do not first see uninterpreted black marks on the white board or hear the sounds of your classmates arriving. You perceive these things right away as printed or spoken words even if you cannot understand them. That you understand speech as speech or a textbook as a book does not mean that your interpretation is unreliable nor that it creates the meaning of what is interpreted. Your understanding of what the things are about you is bound together with your interpretation of them. Understanding is global and general; interpretation is local and particular.
Hermeneutics is a special kind of “interpretation”. In Plato’s Ion Socrates refers to the poets as the “interpreters” of the gods. Hermeneta is Greek for “interpretation”, the disclosing of that which was previously hidden. Interpretation is conjoined with what we understand “truth” to be. Formally, hermeneutics was the study of how interpretation occurs and is intertwined with “method”. It is the art of understanding written texts; but in it, all things are understood as written texts. The Irish writer, James Joyce, gives us a beautiful example of hermeneutical activity and what we understand as art, and in doing so, of what understanding and interpretation indicates in the “Proteus” section of his novel Ulysses:
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies.”
Dilthey, the founder of the modern Human Sciences, expanded the methodology of hermeneutics so that it became the study of the methods of the sciences themselves. When we look at ourselves as knowers, as we attempt to do in our Core Theme, what we are really doing is interpreting ourselves through the “shared knowledge” that comes to us through our culture. What we are is concealed to us through this shared knowledge, and so what is required is a “deconstruction” of this shared knowledge. In interpreting ourselves we are interpreting a text that has been overladen by centuries of “interpretations” and “misinterpretations”.
Hermeneutics originally focused on how the Bible was interpreted, as well as other religious texts. The word itself is associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and pneuma or “breath, in-spiration” so that the word implied an “inspired hearing” or an openness to what the messages of the gods were.
Some questions that arise from the inherent circularity of interpretation are: How can I learn what art is except by studying works of art? and How can I recognize a work of art unless I know what art is to begin with? Our implicit prior knowledge of what art is enables us to recognize clear cases of works of art. When we ask the question: Is it art?, how we interpret the work before us will determine the answer to this question. Whether the work is “serious” or “great” depends on other factors such as “how deep a life it portrays”, how does it illuminate the truth of that which it tries to bring to presence before us. We learn about what language is not by speaking about it and turning it into an “object of study”, but through conversing with it and in it. To do so, we must already know what language is beforehand. We cannot get to hear the message of the messenger unless we already know something about it ahead of time.
Justification: The requirements of the principle of sufficient reason necessitate that reasons be rendered to others for assertions made regarding the “reality” or “facts” of an object, situation or condition. Human beings are the “rational animals”; to be “irrational” is, by definition, to be less than human. We believe that we can “justify” our scientific observations of the world through mathematical calculation, and from these calculations make “predictions” of events that will occur in the future. It is this “pre-dictive” power (lit. before “speech”) that gives calculative reasoning its dominance since the predictive power provides security and certainty with regard to the way thing are. This security and certainty enhances our “preservation of life” and allows us to empower ourselves towards “enhancement of life” through a recognition of life’s potentialities.
To “pre-dict” is to make an assertion prior to that speech which renders reasons. When results are justified through reason, we believe that we have achieved a correspondence between our minds and the objects, conditions or situations under questioning. To justify is to indicate “that which is responsible for” the “correctness” of the “judgement” made in the assertion. As the philosopher Kant indicated, “Judgement is the seat of truth”, or that upon which truth is grounded or based. “Reasons” bring that which is being spoken about to light. Without such reasons, the thing being spoken about remains in the dark, hidden. “Evidence” or that which is experienced must be provided and the correspondence between that which is “experienced”, the evidence and the thing, situation or condition must correspond. For example, reasons provide the relations between a criminal and his crime and “justifies” the assertion of guilt. When one asserts a position that Democrats in the USA are really lizard-like aliens preying on children for their blood (just one of many QAnon beliefs) evidence must be provided for making such a statement. When one asserts that “the election was stolen”, one must provide corresponding evidence to show that that was the case. Believing that a situation or condition is the case is not the same as “justifying” that belief, as many courts throughout the USA have asserted. Conspiracy theorists, in general, lack the corresponding evidence and reasons for their assertions to be taken as true. Their beliefs are irrational, without reasons.
The type of “justification” required by reason is, some believe, not possible when making assertions about morals or ethics because moral judgements are “values” and these must be distinguished from assertions made about what we call “facts”: i.e. there are no “moral facts”. “Values” are what we human beings create through our willing in the world and through our determination of what things are and how they are. This separation of statements of fact from statements of values is known as the “fact-value” distinction. Efforts have been made to make morals subject to the same calculations that are used for scientific evidence such as Bentham’s utilitarianism, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. This inquiry on facts and values is discussed in more depth in the writings on Darwin and Nietzsche in this blog.
To “justify” clearly has relations to its root word “justice”. How does our understanding of the word “justice” relate to justifying and justification? With the modern view of what human beings are given to us by Descartes and Kant, human being is that being before whom all other beings are brought before and required to give their reasons for being what they are as beings. This is the domineering, commanding stance of human being before whom all other beings are brought before and “justified” as to what they are as beings. This “justification” is that which is responsible for something being defined as what it is, how it stands in its truth. To justify is to argue for or defend. Our reasons for justifying our mathematical calculations, for instance, are that these calculations give the best explanation of our observations and experiences (experiments).
Our calculations secure our our standing in our being-in-the-world and provide the potential for the all-important “life enhancing” or “quality of life” activities that are the purposes and ends of our arts. Our calculations give our domination and control, our mastery of nature, and their “correctness” is demonstrated in the predictability of outcomes. There is a “justification” provided by the mind’s correspondence to the object in question and in the mind’s representations of that object in the mathematical. These justifications are shared in the language of the principle of reason through the belief in the schemata of the technological framing of the things in this world.
Objectivity: At the core of the questioning regarding the IB’s approach to knowledge is the question of “objectivity”. Our ideas regarding objectivity and of our environment as object is central to how we have come to understand ourselves and our world around us. The division of our being-in-the-world into one apprehended as subject-object through the thinking of the French philosopher Rene Descartes, marking that point where human beings become the centre of their worlds. is the great paradigm shift in the history of thought in the West. When we consider the nature that is the object of natural sciences and of technological exploitation, we believe that we have some knowledge regarding beings and things. Is this the case? Philosophers and thinkers have argued that we do not have knowledge of the things themselves; what we have knowledge of is our own representations of those things. The dominance of technology and its rationalism is held together in our modern world with a susceptibility to superstition for human beings seem to desire more than what is given to them in their rationalism and technology.
“Objectivity” has its roots in the Latin ob- and jacio: jacio “to throw”, ob “against”. What is “thrown” and what is that “against” which it is thrown? The things of the world must be brought to presence and made to stand in permanence so that we can make judgements regarding them. As the philosopher Nietzsche once said: “Only that which has no history can be defined”. To define is to make judgements regarding the things of our world. But are not all things historical? Things are brought before us to give us their reasons as to their “what”, “why”, and “how”. It is human beings who determine what qualifies as a thing and what does not. This is made most explicit in the philosophy of Kant (“The mind makes the object”) but we can also find it in the philosophy of the English philosopher John Locke who determined that the things of Nature were of no value in themselves unless they were taken possession of and worked on by human beings. The key with regard to “objectivity” is that human being is made the centre of the world. The two central features of modernity are that human beings are the centre of beings as a whole, the “subject” to which they are all referred, and the beingness of things/beings themselves is conceived as the being-represented as the producible and explainable.
The following links provide greater depth regarding the question of objectivity:
Perspectives: The following links deal with perspectives and perspectivism in greater detail:
Power: The word “power” is one of the most general concepts that are used in TOK, and because of this generality becomes quite obscure when a more precise definition is required. Power indicates what something is in its “possibilities”, its “potential” to be something that it is not already, how something is in its manner of being-in-the-world, what something actually is in its factual “reality”. When, for instance, we speak of money as “congealed energy” , we are speaking of it as having as its basis its roots in “power”. The old saying “Money is the root of all evil” would more properly be said as “Power is the root of all evil”, something which is caught most beautifully in the films of The Lord of the Rings. The German philosopher Nietzsche sees all being and beings as “will to power and nothing besides”, including ourselves as human beings.
All “power” originates in Nature. The word “nature” comes from the Latin natura which in turn comes from nasci, “to be born, to originate”. (Lord of the Rings fans will recognize that this is the word given to the Ring in the language of Mordor). Natura means “that which lets something originate from itself”. We can see some connections here to what we mean by “creativity”, for example in Shakespeare’s statement that “the art itself is nature”. When we speak of “the nature of things” we mean what things are in their “possibility” and how they are regardless of whether they actually are or not. In Christian thought, human beings in their “natural state” are viewed as what is given to human beings in their createdness as beings which is turned over to their freedom. The “nature” if left to itself brings about the total destruction of the human being through the passions. Nature must be suppressed. It is in a certain sense what must not be.
Another view, the modern view, says that it is through the unleashing of the drives and the passions that the natural state of human beings is to be achieved. This modern view is given to us most clearly in the thinking of Nietzsche who makes the “body” the key to our interpretation of the world and brings about a harmonious relation of the “sensible” and the elements of the natural. This new relation is realized through our technology which brings the elemental (earth, fire, water, light) into our power and by this power gives us the ability to make ourselves capable of the mastery of the world through a systematic world domination. It is from within technology that the systematic articulation of the truth at any given time about ‘beings’ as a whole is given and this articulation is called “metaphysics”. Nietzsche will say “technology is the highest form of will-to-power”; Heidegger following Nietzsche will say “Technique is the metaphysic of the age”. Technology is the attempt to overcome the separation of “spirit and nature” that dominates Western thinking and is one of the reasons why this thinking arose in the West and not elsewhere.
When we attempt to arrive at an understanding and definition of the concept of “power”, we can begin by going back to Aristotle and noting that he describes the essence of nature as “movedness”, “motion”, or kinesis. What is the essence of movement? We view all movement as requiring a “cause” or agency. For Aristotle, what we call “nature” is taken as “cause” understood as aitia or aition in the sense of “origin”. By aition Aristotle means “that which is responsible for the fact that some thing is what it is”. Aition is a common suffix in English and we can understand many of our common words according to this understanding: “education” from educare “the leading out” and that which is responsible for the leading out; “information” that which is responsible for the “form” that “informs”. This aition becomes later understood as “sufficient cause” and “agency”.
For Aristotle, however, aitia is not only understood as the “cause” of motion; it is also understood as the control present over the movement as such. The movement present in the seed becomes a tree, not something else; the movement in the fertilized human embryo becomes a human being, not a cat. This domination or control was called Necessity by the Greeks, what we might sometimes refer to as “the laws of Nature”. Movement is not merely to be understood as change of place. A tree my remain still while being in motion as is shown in its leaves changing colour, etc. For the Greeks, movement was an emergence into being present, a flower blossoming for example.
The power within the things that are by nature is distinguished from the “artifacts” which are made by human beings. The things of nature have the power within themselves while artifacts such as a chair or desk have their power given to them from outside of themselves. The things of nature are in movement towards a completion, an end which may or may not occur. The artifacts made by human beings are complete, finished and have been brought to presence by human work. We speak of a ‘work of art’.
Power must be understood as a means and not an end, just as money cannot be an end in itself but as a potential means to achieve ends. Seeing power as an end in itself is similar to confusing the piano to the sonata or the palette to the painting. The attractiveness of power lies in its dynamic potential and we moderns see this potential as limitless, quite different to previous civilizations, and this perhaps accounts for our insatiable fascination for the ‘gigantic’ and our desire for speed and efficiency in all facets of our lives.
When we speak of the “power of words”, we mean their power to create illusion and error. Currently, the role of fantasy and imagination which denies the reality of fact, the disbelief in the sciences, the destruction of language as a conveyor of truth, the belief that merely holding an opinion is “freedom of thought”, these are all expressions of the powerlessness of the people who believe in their need to find something which allows them to face the reality of the world whether it be the social reality of politics or the physical reality given to us in our sciences. Their belief finds itself present in their desire to submit themselves to a collective, any collective where the real needs of love and recognition may be found but they are found only in ersatz form.
Responsibility: Ethics is the area of knowledge where the idea of responsibility is a basic concept. Ethics relates to our actions and behaviours in communities, our speaking with and to others, and our ability to choose what our actions will be towards others. The concepts of ethics, morals and values are concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably in TOK, but are they, in fact, the same things? We speak of “ethical responsibility” and “moral responsibility” but we do not have similar terminology for “value responsibility”? Are we not “responsible” for the choices we make of what we “value”? Different human beings value different things. On what ground do they value those things? Our lack of clarity with regard to these concepts stems from our desire to have it both ways: we wish for the “freedom” we believe we have in our “subjectivity” while at the same time holding on to the “permanence” of what we believe “facts” and “objectivity” give to us believing as we do that “facts” are “value-free” which, as many of the posts here attempt to point out, is not true.
Responsibility is literally “the ability to respond” because one has the power or potential to do so and is able to affect an outcome. It involves “choice” and it involves our relations with others in our communities. The failure to act is also an action and usually involves our concern for our own self-interest. Responsibility is conjoined with duties and obligations towards both ourselves and others within our communities. In the West, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are questions and examples that are constantly with us when we consider our actions. The answers to these questions are at the core of the IB program and how the IB identifies what its student should be, the IB’s wishes for the way-of-being of its graduates.
When Donald Trump responded to a question from a reporter that he “bore no responsibility” for his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he demonstrated both moral and ethical falsehoods regarding the concept of responsibility. Firstly, as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he certainly had the power, the ability to muster the resources available to him and direct them to fighting the virus; and secondly, as President he had sworn an oath to protect the American people and so was under an obligation to do so. His response was so inadequate as to be seen as a sign of his overall incompetence and unfittedness for the office he held. The only true freedom human beings have is the ability to think and to not do so is both “unfree” and to be less than fully human.
We can see many of these themes regarding responsibility in that most ethical play of Shakespeare’s: Macbeth. The play is Shakespeare’s shortest because Macbeth is a man of action, “a man of few words” and, consequently, a man of few thoughts. The play is not about “ambition”; Shakespeare is not speaking against ambition but he is, most emphatically, speaking against “the illness should attend it”, about what happens when people aspire to positions for which they are not fitted. Macbeth is the great soldier, the saviour of his country, but what makes Macbeth a great soldier, something for which he is truly “fitted”, are not the same virtues that are required in a king. The “virtue” of some thing is what that thing is fitted for, its “good”. It is the virtue of a thorough-bred race horse that it be capable of running fast; this particular type of horse is not good if it cannot do so. Virtue is conjunctive to ethics, morals and values and their relation to what human beings are fitted for in that in the play both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must release themselves from their humanity: they must become “inhuman”, like the Weird Sisters, in order to “catch the nearest way” to their desires to rule Scotland. Their descent into darkness begins with a denial of truth, and their subsequent rise is filled with fraud, deception and lies. For Shakespeare, moral and ethical responsibility are “natural” and comprise what being a human being truly is.
Truth: Aletheia and truth: How we understand and interpret what “truth” is is essential for understanding who and what we are as human beings and what we think the world about us is. Truth is what is sought when we begin to use our “maps” and journey towards understanding the entities that are in our areas of knowledge.
Aletheia is Greek for ‘truth; truthfulness, frankness, sincerity’. Alethes is ‘true; sincere, frank; real, actual’. There is also a verb, aletheuein, ‘to speak truly, etc’. The words are related to lanthanein, with an older form lethein, ‘to escape notice, be unseen, unnoticed’, and lethe, ‘forgetting, forgetfulness’. An initial a- in Greek is often privative, like the Latin in- or the Germanic un-. (The ‘privative alpha’ occurs in many Greek-derived words in English: ‘a-nonymous’, ‘a-theism’, etc.) Alethes, aletheia are generally accepted to be a-lethes, a-letheia, that which is ‘not hidden or forgotten’, or he who ‘does not hide or forget’. (These characteristics/meanings of truth can all be applied to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and doing so will provide an approach or an opening to an understanding of that play).
We reach the ‘essence of truth’, the ‘openness of the open’, from two directions: from ‘reflection on the ground of the possibility of correctness (adaequatio, ‘truth as correctness’ or ‘correspondence’)’ and from ‘recollection of the beginning (aletheia)’ Aletheuein is ‘to take out of hiddenness, to uncover; aletheia is ‘uncovering’; and alethes is ‘unhidden. This uncovering allows that which is to be perceived.
This has three implications: 1. Truth is not confined to explicit assertions and discrete mental, primarily theoretical, attitudes such as judgments, beliefs and representations. The world as a whole, not just entities within it, is unhidden – unhidden as much by moods (emotion as a way of knowing) as by understanding. 2. Truth is primarily a feature of reality – beings or things and entities, their being and world – not of thoughts and utterances (reason and language as ways of knowing). Beings, things, entities are, of course, unhidden to us, and we disclose them ‘to unconceal; -ing; -ment’, they can have an active sense: ‘alethes means: 1. unconcealed said of beings, 2. grasping the unconcealed as such, i.e. being unconcealing’. But beings, etc. are genuinely unconcealed; they do not just agree with an assertion or representation. 3. Truth as ‘unconcealment’ explicitly presupposes concealment or hiddenness. Human being and being is in ‘untruth as well as truth’. This means that ‘falling’ human being misinterprets things. (‘Falling’ has the character of being lost in the publicness of the society of which one is a member and of the clinging to the understanding of the world that that society has put forward, or being absorbed in the shadows of the Cave as Plato says in his Allegory. (Macbeth’s first soliloquy: Act I sc. vii and the imagery/metaphors associated with ‘leaping’ and ‘falling’; his second soliloquy “Is this a dagger that I see before me…” where the dagger is ‘revealed’ to him as the ‘instrument’ that he will use to kill Duncan rather than as the last warning sign at that last moment where Macbeth still has a choice.)
Untruth’ is not plain ‘falsity’, nor is it ‘hiddenness’: it is ‘disguisedness’ of the truth. In Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Macbeth, ‘untruth’ is still not ‘falsity’, but ‘hiding, concealing’. What conceals is no longer human being, but being itself. The prophecies of the witches for example in Macbeth provide an example of this concealing hiddenness that disguises.
There are two types of unconcealing: (a) of the open, the world or beings as a whole; (b) of particular beings within this open space. The first type (a) involves concealment: everything was hidden before the open was established, and concealment, persisting in that the open, reveals only certain aspects of reality, not its whole nature. It is not possible for human beings to have knowledge of the whole. Each area of knowledge provides a ‘field’ or an ‘opening’ in which the beings that it studies are illuminated and hidden simultaneously.
The second type (b) involves a concealment that we overcome ‘partially and case by case’. Plato, in assimilating truth to light, and of the light to Love indicates the ‘openness’ that is necessary for things to be revealed in their full ‘unconcealment’ (Stage 4 of the Cave where the human being is outside of the Cave; the journey outside of the Cave occurs ‘within’ the human being and the Cave). We choose, like Macbeth for instance, the idea of hiddenness or darkness over the light and ‘unhiddenness’ (thus the many metaphors of darkness and disguise, hiddenness and forgetfulness in the play; after the killing of Duncan, Macbeth loses all sense of ‘otherness’ and becomes a tyrant), and thus the privative force of a-letheia: the light is constant – never switched on or off (Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit as a reversal of this but also a denial) – and reveals everything there is to anyone who looks. We lose the idea of the open (and the comportment of Love), which must persist throughout our unconcealing of beings. For Plato, morality is purely internal; and it is here in the revealing that morality, ethics and ontology are given substance (as they are, for instance, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
In Plato, aletheia ‘comes under the yoke of the idea’. Idea, from the Greek idein, ‘to see’, refers to the visual aspect of entities or things. The ascent of the prisoners out of the cave is a progressive opening of their vision to this idea and the idea of the Good from which all ideas spring (although we cannot speak of the Good as an ‘entity’ in the sense of a ‘thing’ or ‘object’ whose idea it is). Hence aletheia is no longer primarily a characteristic of beings in themselves: it is ‘yoked’ together with the soul, and consists in a homoiösis, a ‘likeness’, between them which is generated through Beauty (or Eros). This can be understood as a triad (or triangle): the soul + the idea + Beauty. Homoiösis has since become adaequatio (in the Latin interpretation of the word, ‘correctness’ or ‘coherence’) and then ‘agreement’; and since Descartes, the relation between soul and beings has become the subject-object relation, mediated by a ‘representation’, the degenerate descendant of Plato’s idea. Truth becomes correctness, and its ‘elbow-room’, the open, or the experience of Beauty and of eros, is neglected. (‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’).
Some counterclaims to this version of truth: It is not certain that alethes comes from a- and lanthanein. Even if it does, it hardly ever means ‘unhidden’ in Homer, Hesiod (the earliest authors), and later authors, but has three main senses: the correctness of speech and belief (epistemological); the reality of being (ontological); the genuineness, truthfulness and conscientiousness of an individual or character (‘existential’). These three aspects of aletheia are united in Plato (and also for Shakespeare). The ascent from the cave is an ascent of being, of knowledge and of existence. Throughout the history of philosophy, it is assumed that if Plato regards truth as correctness of apprehension, he has jettisoned its other senses; while if another sense reappears, this is because Plato is indecisive and ‘ambiguous’. The three senses are fused together in Plato. Interpreting truth as unhiddenness would not save it from modern subjectivity: unhiddenness must be unhiddenness to someone, but the nature of this unhiddenness is pre-determined.
Plato says that the things we ‘make’ by holding up a mirror are not beings that are ‘unhidden’, and that the things painters make are not alethe (Republic, 596d,e). But perhaps this may be a joke of Plato’s since he himself has written a book, a dialogue, which is a ‘mirror’ of the being of Socrates, or an idealization of the being of Socrates. How is it that the things in mirrors and in paintings are not ‘unhidden’? How are we to understand how it can be said that to make things by holding up a mirror, we must take ‘making’ as Techne in the Greek sense? Are things no more hidden in a mirror than in their being in the world? To discuss this at length would be to have to examine the nature of the Platonic dialogue and particularly the dialogue Phaedrus which is the dialogue on writing, and this cannot be done here. In the allegory of the Cave the shadows, too, require light, but in their revealing the things that they are, they are not fully ‘shown’.
(Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3 sc. 2 may be of help here: “… let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”) Plato’s (and Shakespeare’s, through his use of personification) point is that things in a mirror are not real, not alethe in the ontological sense, but that their revealing requires a special human beholding, a beholding that takes place in the open, that the mimetic art is directed to us and to the Forms themselves and what is created are the ‘images’ and the outward appearance of these entities.
Values: The word “values” comes to prominence in the 19th century in the writings of the German philosopher Nietzsche. “Values” are what human beings create in their willing and are, therefore, “subjective”. The word “values” has come to dominate our speech regarding morals and ethics. Even the Pope uses the word “values” when discussing what human behaviour should be. The consequences of using such a word unthinkingly are many. Values indicate that there are no “moral facts” or universal principles of action that are appropriate to all human beings at all times and in all places. In the human sciences, we speak of the “fact/value distinction” and this distinction has become a principle for the thinking in that area of knowledge if it is to call itself a science.
The following links address the concept of “values” and how it shapes our everyday thinking and being-in-the-world: