TOK Essay Topics May 2023

A few notes of warning and guidance before we begin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essay Topics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prescribed Titles May 2022

Thoughts on the latest IB TOK Prescribed Essay Titles May 2022

The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are some strategies and suggestions, prompts and prods, questions and possible responses only for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given. They should be used alongside the discussions that you will carry out with your peers and teachers during the process of constructing your essay. The TOK essay is a challenging assignment at any time but especially now given the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and the various learning environments that are a result of that pandemic.

The notes here are intended to guide you towards a thoughtful, personal response to the prescribed titles posed.  They are not to be considered as an answer let alone the answer to the question(s) posed by the title and they should only be used to help provide you with another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles and from your own TOK class discussions and research. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools of Anglo-America and this education and its social contexts pre-determines their predilection to view the world as they do and to understand the basic concepts as they do. The TOK course itself is a product of this logical positivism though efforts are being made to make it more universally embracing.

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

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

Remember to include sufficient TOK content in your essay. When you have completed your essay, ask yourself if it could have been written by someone who had not participated in the TOK course. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then you do not have sufficient TOK content in your essay. Also, follow the basic format requirements of the assignment: 1600 words, 12-point font, etc. Have the assessment rubric ready-to-hand and use it to guide you in the structuring of your paper.

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

  1. Can there be knowledge that is independent of culture? Discuss with reference to mathematics and one other area of knowledge?

We are asked in Title #1 to consider whether there is a knowledge which transcends culture, a knowledge free from the limitations or biases that might be seen in the “values” that a particular culture esteems most highly. We are asked to consider mathematics as the one area of knowledge that appears to transcend cultures since a man working in Moscow, Idaho will have no problems collaborating with a woman who researches in Moscow, Russia on the same topic of research since mathematics is perceived as a “universal language”. It might be better, perhaps, to ask whether there is a mode or manner of knowing that will provide a knowledge for us that is beyond the limits of change that is brought about by becoming (time) and history, what is properly called “historicism”.

“Knowledge” is a product (something that is brought forth) of and through human beings; and individual human beings are the product, or what is brought forth, of and through the societies, communities or “cultures” they happen to inhabit at any given time. Being products of these cultures, they will value or esteem what their particular culture holds most highly or most dear. What a culture values most highly will be based upon or grounded in what that culture has determined is most necessary to its “security” and permanence. The culture’s need for security and permanence decides in advance what the individuals in that culture think experience is and what the things about them are. For us in TOK, this is central to how we understand and interpret our Core Theme of “knowers and what is known”.

Title #1 asks what is considered “knowledge” and asks you to look specifically at mathematics and one other area of knowledge. This is an appropriate question, since in technological societies algebraic calculation is esteemed or valued most highly by those various “cultures” and societies. (I put “cultures” in scare quotes because there is only one “culture” in technological societies since technology is, ultimately, an homogenizing force. That is the point of the example of the man and woman collaborating in different Moscows: they are able to do so because they are working in the same “culture”).

The word “culture” was first used by the Roman orator Cicero where he spoke of “the cultivation of the soul”, the perfection of human beings, what we today would call “empowerment”. Culture is related to the word “cultivate”, to the gathering and securing of a place, to the tilling of it, to being responsible for it, to responding to it, and to attending to it caringly. In the Biology lab, we speak of a “bacteria culture”. Care and its attendant concepts would be a central category or predicate of any discussion of our Core Theme in our attempts to describe who we are as human beings. We are the beings who “care” for things.

The concept of what we mean by “culture” today is relatively new. It came to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries  in Germany, although today it is ubiquitous or commonplace. Today we speak of “ancient Greek culture”, but this is erroneous for the Greeks had  no “culture”. Their closest word to our concept of “culture” would be ethos from which we get our word “ethical”. The ethical has to do with actions, with doing something, what the Greeks called praxis, and this ethos was lived out in the polis or the “shared community”. We sometimes call a culture the sum of all the thoughts and actions of the human beings who compose it.

Why does a culture need to secure itself? Because a culture involves the activities that engage the human beings within it, there must be some purpose or goal that provides the ground to those activities, something which gives those activities meaning and stability. The concept of “culture” was necessary because of the relativism that arose with the arrival of historicism. Is there a knowledge that is independent of historicism i.e. a knowledge beyond an historical period, geographical place, localized cultures which in turn are used to give context to theories, stories and narratives, and other interpretations of our being-in-the-world from within those cultures?

The issues present in Title #1 are not new. They have been with us since human beings began questioning and thinking about the world we live in. Historically, the nominalist view thought that universals or general ideas were merely “names” without any corresponding reality or relation to particular objects. Properties, numbers, sets or the mathematical itself were considered merely a way or mode of considering the things that exist and, therefore, they were arbitrary and had no correspondence to the “real world”. It took no less an effort than Immanuel Kant’s three great Critiques: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgement to overcome this view, and Kant did so through showing how the mathematical was related to nature and to objects in the world around us. The mathematical was embedded in the objects of Nature.

In the AOK Mathematics, the title invites us to consider whether mathematics was “discovered” or “invented”. Until the thinking of the French philosopher Rousseau, reason (upon which the mathematical and mathematics are based) was considered ahistorical and beyond or independent of any cultural limitations such as time and place, etc. After all, it was reason which determined what human beings are ( the animal rationale: the being capable of reasonand thus determined and made what became called “culture” possible. Reason was prior to mathematics and culture; and the principle of reason (nihil est sine ratione: nothing is without (a) reason) was the ground of both mathematics and culture. If mathematics was “discovered”, it would be beyond the limitations of any particular culture. If mathematics was “invented”, then it would be a product of those particular cultures wherein and from whence it arose. Today, of course, scientists are able to collaborate on projects without regard to the culture in which they are dwelling (or can they? Do they not “dwell” within the same “culture”?). Some research on your part should provide you with examples of the discoveries of the origins of mathematics which occurred simultaneously in China, India and Greece and would seem to suggest that mathematics is not a product of a culture but is more a determiner of what a culture would become. (The Greeks, for instance, rejected Babylonian algebra as being “unnatural” for them.)

Today, we rely on the mathematics of finite calculus and algebra. These define what knowledge is for us. Nature is understood as that which can be measured with exactitude, and through such measurements its “what”, “how”, and “why” can be determined through reason. Our culture esteems mathematical reason, for through it our control over nature (our “knowledge”) provides us with the power to secure our human being-in-the-world (our “culture”) through our sense of caring (concern) and responsibility. Mathematical science is a product of technology , that is, it is a predicate of technology, not vice versa as we commonly think. (See the writings on technology on other pages of this site.) Technology will be used by our culture to solve the problems that technology itself has brought about (climate change, pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, etc.). 

When considering the Arts as an AOK relating to this title, one does not have to look far to see that the Arts play a secondary role in the estimations of value in our modern cultures. Arts are for our entertainment, amusement, or to provide us with “experiences” in our leisure hours. They help us to pleasantly pass the time when we are not engaged in the more “serious” pursuits that our cultures reward.

Whenever I ask a group of young people if they agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the usual response is a one hundred percent hands raised. When I follow up the question with “what then is beholding”, the perplexed looks begin. The more brave will try to give a Cartesian-inspired response along the lines of “subject/object” and of the “subjective” representations of the evaluations of the work of art as an object and the “subjective” values deriving from matters of taste. It is no co-incidence that judgements in the Arts and their truth became “subjective” along with the arrival of the “objective” considerations of algebraic calculus in mathematical physics. Truth lies in the domain of mathematical calculus, not in the works produced by artists. Artistic judgement is now called “the philosophy of aesthetics”.  The separation of human beings and their actions  (what we understand as their “cultures” and “histories”) from those of nature (Descartes’ concept of the Self as Ego cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am) resulted in human beings being placed at the centre, as the apotheosis of nature, as makers of their own destinies and histories. This was the great paradigm shift of Occidental human beings and it began around the time of the Renaissance and found its completion in the Age of Reason. Human beings became “creators” unlike the “makers” or technites/technes as the Greeks understood them. 

We can rephrase our earlier question regarding mathematics by asking: “Is great art discovered or invented?” The most probable response (because it is the easier response) will be that great art is invented or created. Does great art’s truth lie beyond (or is it independent of) the culture of which it is a product?” If great art is “invented”, then it is clearly a product of its time and place, its social contexts, etc. If it is “discovered”, from where does it originate? We often hear of the “timelessness of great art”. And when the artists themselves are asked about their art, they are at many times, at a loss for words to explain it and sometimes refer to mystical or other sources such as “muses” or “possession”, other “spirits” or “daemons”. They are usually not at a loss for words, however, when they speak of their techniques when engaging in bringing forth their works. This suggests that the truth of art and art itself (and I am only speaking of great art here) lies independent of and beyond the culture of which the artist as an individual is a product.

Here in Bali where I live, the people do homage to their gods for the many gifts that the gods have bestowed on them. Those of us from the West and from the technological societies of the East find it “silly” or “superstitious” that the Balinese would pay homage to their gods rather than to Honda, Toyota or Yamaha for the making of their motorcycles and their automobiles. But for the Balinese, it is not Toyota or Honda that have “created” their motorcycles and cars. Motorcycles and automobiles were always already there as gifts from the gods, waiting for “inspired” human beings to “discover”, or more precisely, to “uncover” them and bring them out into the “open”.

2. To what extent do you agree with the claim that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts“? (Maya Angelou) Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #2 asks for a personal response from you: do you agree with the claim that there is a world of difference between truth and facts and to what extent i.e. totally? partially? not at all? So the title is not looking for an academic scholarly recitation on the distinction between “truth” and “facts” (if indeed there is any) but rather, a personal response filled with personal examples (unless, of course, you happen to have made those scholarly opinions on truth and facts “your own”). These notes and thoughts to follow may not be helpful to you in this regard, but the hope held here is that they may prod you along the path to thinking about a possible response to the topic. 

Truth is usually discussed from within three main theories: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. The correspondence and coherence theories of truth were introduced into Western thinking through the thought of Aristotle and rely basically on the principles of logic. The pragmatic theory of truth finds its origins in the sophist Protagoras (“man is the measure of all things”) and gains further development in the thinking of British and American empiricists and finds its foundations in the Greek word pragma or practical, “material”, concrete things. If you have read any of the other writings on this blog, you will probably have noted that I subscribe to the original meaning of the word “truth” as it is found in the Greeks: aletheia, which means “to uncover”, “to reveal”, “to unconceal”, “to bring out into the open so that something may show itself”, “to retrieve from forgottenness”. This original meaning of the word “truth” is broader and encompasses the other main theories within it. No matter what your response to this topic, your essay will have to contain elements of the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories of truth if it is to be successful. Your essay will “bring forth and show” your propositions and assertions (correspondence), your evidence (coherence) and your judgements (pragmatic) regarding the question asked and demonstrate or show your knowledge of the terms used.

What is a “fact” and are there facts that stand alone outside of the systems which create them? Here in Bali, the date on the Balinese calendar posted on my wall is much different than the date and time shown on my computer. The Balinese calendar is a lunar calendar; the computer’s calendar is a solar one. Both calendars are correct but they express different facts. The Balinese calendar shows me when I can anticipate various religious activities to occur here; the solar calendar lets me know when, for instance, the TOK essay titles will be released. The two calendars reference two distinct worlds. Both calendars express “truths” in that they are a “showing forth” of time; it is the same time. Both calendars are attempts to understand what time is. We commonly view time as a series of consecutive “nows” which can be measured with exactitude in discrete mathematical units. We do the same with space. But what time and space are in themselves (their “truth”) remains a mystery for us, hidden from us. The use of mathematics and the facts which it reveals about the nature of ourselves and our worlds (and the world) is the reason why it is so highly valued among technological cultures. The spontaneity of our freedom is made greater through our control and commandeering of the spontaneity of nature.

We as human beings inhabit a number of different “worlds” simultaneously. You inhabit the world of being a student or a teacher; you are a mother or a father, a son or a daughter, a friend or lover in another “world”; you may have a number of different avatars in the virtual “worlds” you may inhabit; you may be a sportsperson, or musician, or inhabit some other “world” in your hobbies. Each of these worlds contain their own facts which are illuminated for you by their “truths”.

In the AOK Human Sciences, a phenomenon that should be of great concern is the assault on truth that is occurring among the populist movements of both Europe and North America, something which the African-American poet and novelist, Maya Angelou, would be greatly concerned about since truth, knowledge and freedom would be inextricably linked for her. The distinction between North American populism and its European counterpart is in the fact that European populism is based on “blood and father/motherland” while North American populism directs its goals to more abstract concepts such as “liberty, justice and freedom”, etc. Europeans and Asians, for the most part, are indigenous or autochthonous peoples: they have belonged to the “father/motherland” from before the time of making the land their own in their “conscious” memory. North Americans are not so. For North Americans, there has always been an historical awareness of making the land their own since they have no history from before the age of progress.

The North American making of the land their own began with the genocide of its Native Peoples, and in the USA, the establishment of the institution of slavery among its white landholders. The truth of these facts is not written in many of their historical narratives (which have been written primarily by white males, though this is changing). The desire to include critical race theory in the curriculum of its schools is divisive for many in the white society  which does not want to know itself and which is finding itself becoming a minority and feels itself under threat. North American history texts are filled with facts, but truth is very much lacking in most cases. 

North American populists are searching for the roots that they have never had. The search appears to be focusing on what they believe are their “roots” in European fascism where race, “patriotism”, and the need for a scapegoat for their perceived ills (African Americans, later immigrants, any “other” perceived as “alien’) are what they use to give their threatened identities some meaning. This sense of threat is an indication of their underlying weakness. The threat that North American whites feel is the loss of security in their own homeland (their “culture”, if you like), and they are willing to defend themselves against this perceived threat through the use of violence with the many weapons they have ready-to-hand. Any viewing of “right wing” media and its topics of discussion will reveal their concerns. The phenomenon of “alternative facts” is not directed at a desire for truth, however, but a desire for power even if this must be achieved through falsehood. (The Italian political philosopher, Machiavelli, once said that princes gain power through fraud.)

Truth as understood by the Greeks also relates to the individual human being as “one who does not hide or forget”. It referred to a person of candour and frankness, someone who does not dissemble or lie when being with others. It is the person who is “free” to be the person that they are (something that seems to be waning in the worlds of our social media today). Truth is a product of our world: it is given to us; falsehood is the product of human being-in-the-world. The world does not lie; it hides. The denial of truth destroys something essential to our humanity and makes us become more bestial.

Within the Arts as an AOK there is, literally, a world of difference between the truths expressed through the Arts and the facts and their truths given to us through our scientific interpretations of the world understood as nature. Scientific research looks for the “fixing of facts” in a world of constant change. This “solidification” of what are called “facts” is provided by our ability to give an explanation and evidence of the “what” and “how” of things (objects) so that they can be secured, fixed, and commandeered to meet whatever ends or goals that we may have in mind. Our age and culture is grounded through a specific interpretation of what is as objects (facts) and through specific comprehensions of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatic), and these grounds have come to determine our age as the technological age. This is the reality of our age; the “world” of our age.  

Van Gogh sunflowers
       Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Pb(NO3)2(aq) + K2CrO4(aq) –> PbCrO4(s) + 2 KNO3(aq)

The painting by Van Gogh shown here (one of his many “Sunflowers” paintings) is titled with the chemical compounds that compose Van Gogh’s yellow paint. A chemist familiar with the compositions of the paints would recognize this “fact”, but knowing this fact would  not bring her anywhere nearer to the painting’s truth, for its truth lies elsewhere, literally, in another world than that of her laboratory. The chemical composition of the paint, its “fact” does reveal something about the painting, but its truth lies elsewhere. The chemist herself, as a human being, not only occupies the world of her laboratory. She also dwells within a number of other worlds, one of which may be where the beauty of the truth of the painting of the “Sunflowers” enriches her life and gives to her a greater sense of her humanity. To dwell only within the world of the facts of her science would be akin to madness.

3. Is there solid justification for regarding knowledge in the natural sciences more highly than knowledge in another area of knowledge? Discuss with reference to the natural sciences and one other area of knowledge.

To “regard” something is to show “care and concern” for that thing. We send our “best regards” to our near and dear ones when we contact them in order to show our care and concern for them. Since we modern human beings define our “essence”, what we are, as “freedom”, the knowledge that enhances and secures that freedom will be held in the highest regard i.e. it will be given our greatest care and concern (attention) and will be “valued” and esteemed most highly. The knowledge which we have gained from the natural sciences, the knowledge that controls and commandeers the chance brought about by nature’s spontaneity, increases our own spontaneity understood as “freedom”. 

The two Greek words techne and logos have been combined by moderns into the one word technology, and this one word captures the knowing (the knowledge) that is present in the sciences (logos) with the making (techne) that is the application of those sciences in the applied and mechanistic arts. Modern medicine, for example, is one area where the discoveries of the natural sciences are applied through the art of healing. Technology is our way of being-in-the-world and through it we demonstrate our care and concern for “life”. 

To look at an immediate example of what is being said here: nature has demonstrated its spontaneity with the arrival of the Covid 19 virus and its many mutations, and this virus has limited the spontaneity and freedom of human beings in obvious ways. Through the knowledge that we have from the natural sciences, we have been able to somewhat control nature’s spontaneity through the development of vaccines even though the virus continues to mutate. The ability to secure our freedom (our “lives”, in this case) is the reason why the knowledge that we get from the natural sciences is most highly valued in our technological societies. 

This esteeming of the knowledge gained from the natural sciences comes at a price, however, and this price may be seen and understood in the use of the words “solid justification” in the title. Science is “the theory of the real”. In modernity, theory is the viewing of the real, how the real is seen and appropriated, how the world is taken into ourselves by way of experience. Science sets upon the real to set itself up as theory and to set the real up as a surveyable, calculable series of causes. What comes to presence through the viewing is the real, and science throughout its history has been transformed into the theory that entraps the real and secures its objectness, makes it come to a stand, “fixed”, “solid”, “permanent”. Theory makes secure a region of the real. Every new phenomenon emerging within an area of science (physics, chemistry, biology and even the Human Sciences) is refined to the point that it can be defined and fit into the standardized objective coherence of the theory. It becomes “solid”, “fixed” in other words. It is not permitted to change. 

“Solid justification” is the requirement of the principle of sufficient reason necessitating 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, to be inhumane. 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”, before the handing over to others) that gives calculative reasoning its dominance since the predictive power provides security and certainty with regard to the way things 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 in our freedom. By predicting and controlling nature’s spontaneity, our freedom is enhanced and our possibilities widened. 

To “pre-dict” is to make an assertion prior to that speech which renders reasons. When the predictions or results are justified through reason, we believe that we have achieved a correspondence between our minds and the objects, conditions or situations under observation and 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 and justifies them. Without such reasons, the thing being spoken about remains in the dark, hidden. “Evidence”, or that which is experienced through sight primarily, 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 Presidential election was stolen”, one must provide corresponding evidence to show that that was indeed 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.

One of the consequences of 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” because morals are ephemeral, lacking solidity, and fixity and thus without the possibility of justification. “Values” are what we human beings create through our freedom and willing in the world and through our determination of what things are and how they are and what we think they should be. This separation of statements or assertions of fact from statements or assertions of value is known as the “fact-value” distinction and it is the dominant principle or position in every Human Science. 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”, and the use of statistics is the primary language that the Human Sciences use to reveal their “truths”. 

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 the philosophers 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 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, what we have come to call our “culture”. It is our calculations that give us 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 i.e. the world and its beings (things) understood as object. In many parts of the world, there is a turning away from the facts so that we may affirm what is contradicted by the experience of everyday living (climate change denial, for instance, or the need to live in an alternative reality).

In the modern age, beauty has been radically subjectivized so that we have our belief that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. In all of our scientific explanations of things, we are required to discount the “other” as beautiful because the beautiful is not calculable (try as we may to do so). “Love” is consent to the fact of authentic “otherness”: we love otherness not because it is other but because it is beautiful.  But what happens to “love” in a world dominated by the view that the freedom brought about through the objectivication of the things that are becomes most highly valued? The Greek philosopher, Plato, places the tyrant (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, but the list could include all of the other autocrats currently parading or ‘strutting and fretting’ around the world’s stage) as the worst human being because in his self-serving, “otherness” has completely disappeared for him. 

What I am trying to say here is that the world before us is beautiful and our appropriate response to it is love. However over time, trust in the world has been replaced with doubt as the methodological pre-requisite for an exact science. If we confine ourselves to anything simply as an object, it cannot be loved as beautiful (reflect on the example of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in title #2). The key difficulty is that in loving the beauty of the world as it is (and esteeming it most highly), how does this affect the desire to change it? With regard to our title, what is being maintained here is that one knows more about something by loving it, and it should be this love that should be most highly esteemed because it should determine our understanding of the world. In our age, the knowledge gained in the natural sciences through the principle of reason is exalted above understanding and this is the reversal of the world shown to us in Plato’s Cave. 

4. How do historians and human scientists give knowledge meaning through the telling of stories? Discuss with reference to history and the human sciences.

Title #4 is very restrictive in the parameters of its requirements: you are required to confine yourself to the areas of knowledge of history and the human sciences. You will also have to consider what “meaning” is and how it might be understood, and what is meant by “the telling of stories”. 

“Meaning” is that knowledge that is handed over to others. It is “meaningful”; it is something requiring concern and care to a greater or lesser degree. It is that knowledge that is intended to be conveyed to another through the use of language, whether that language be in words or in numbers, symbols or signs. Meaning ascribes to something its “de-finition”, its limits or its boundaries so that it may be distinguished from something else which is not intended. The Greeks identified human being as the zoon logon echon, that animal that is capable of speech and thus that animal that is capable of conveying meaning through language. We constantly tell each other stories about our experiences. This telling of stories is the giving of an account, whether it be what we did over the weekend or our view of what the meaning of life is.

Since their inceptions, both History and the Human Sciences have aspired to the exactitude and “truth” that is given to us in the knowledge of our Natural Sciences because the knowledge given to us in the Natural Sciences is that which is most highly valued. This aspiration realizes itself in History and the Human Sciences in what is called “research” as the most appropriate method in the approach to what is called knowledge. The Natural Sciences deal with the objects of nature, those objects which come to presence in their own ways from out of themselves, and those objects tend to remain “fixed” and can be accounted for as masses in motion in time and space for the most part. These movements of coming to presence can be accounted for mathematically through the use of axioms, principles, laws and theories. This is how they are accounted for.

In History, the object of study is not present before us. It is in the past and must somehow be brought to presence, to the present, through a way of viewing (theory) and the selection of either appropriate artefacts or other evidence that will support the assertions or propositions put forward. In the way of viewing, the way of how the first principles have been pre-determined, the objects of History become fixed and can be researched in such a way that what we call knowledge can result. The objects that are studied in the Human Sciences are in constant motion. They, too, must be fixed so that statements/assertions can be made about them. This fixing comes about in the form of statistics which provide the “evidence” to support the assertions that are made based on the first principles that are used.

Whether the world is accounted for through language or mathematics, it must necessarily be accounted for. The giving of an account is the interpretation that provides meaning, that which makes something meaningful. The giving of an account is a narrative, the telling of a story. We must remove from our minds the fossilized conception of a “story” being a “fiction”. Accounts or stories may be simple or complex. A recipe is an account of how to bake a cake. Its step-by-step algorithm when followed correctly will result in the bringing to presence of the end product: a cake. The accounts of History or the Human Sciences, likewise though more complex, are stories which will bring about end results that are meaningful to the historian and the social scientist and their audience. The first principles will determine what will be chosen and how the stories will be told, the methodology. A difficulty in the stories told, for instance, is that many women complain that the stories are told by men, particularly white men for the most part.

History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the seekers of knowledge or researchers cannot directly observe the past in the same way that the object of research can be observed and studied in the Natural Sciences. How the past is to be viewed must be decided on beforehand. “Historiology” is the study of history in general, the search for what its essence is, what its purpose is. “Historiography”, that is, a study of the writings of history, is not a study of all of the past, but rather a study of those traces or artifacts that have been deemed relevant and meaningful by historians; and this choosing of artefacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”. This is where the importance of “shared knowledge” comes into play: what we call our “shared knowledge” is “history”, and what artefacts we choose to select and what stories we decide to tell are determined beforehand by our culture.

Our ways of knowing are the manners in which we establish a relation between ourselves and our worlds, our communities, and to the things that we encounter in the world about us. One of these ways of relating is through Memory. With Memory, we must also keep in mind “forgetting” and what is forgotten or what is chosen to be forgotten, for memory and forgottenness go hand in hand.

“To forget” in Greek is lethe. It is the opposite of aletheia or the Greek word for “truth” or “a bringing to presence”. To bring something to presence, to bring something to mind, to “regard it” with care and concern, is “truth”. It is a “bringing things to light”. Lethe is to cast something into oblivion, into darkness, or that the something is “not present” for us. In Greek mythology, one must first drink of the river Lethe after death in order to be able to cross over in Charon’s boat into the underworld; remembering is essential to being human and to its “life”. To be good at rote learning, to remember facts and dates or mathematical formulas, has nothing to do with Memory as a way of knowing. Memory is more akin to “commemoration” and is part of what distinguishes human beings from other animals; we are able to “commemorate”; other animals cannot. This is why Memory is an essential part of history, and its elements of story telling for History must take the form of “narrative”, a story.

In the oral traditions prior to the arrival of written narratives and stories, Memory was seen as “saving” and “preserving” the story, but this saving and preserving also gave the story “meaning” by its being supported as plausible. The Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, saw philosophy as more akin to poetry than to science. Both History and the Human Sciences attempt to find their truth through the methodology of scientific research and its first principles, but in the search for meaning and preserving both must resort to stories or the telling of narratives. This is especially so in the USA where there is no collective Memory from before the Age of Progress.

What we call History as an object of study appears simultaneously with ratio, calculation, thought. Thucydides, the first historian of the West, wished in his History of the Peloponnesian War, to give an account of the war without the “adornments and embellishments of the poets” (Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, for instance) so that he could arrive at his universal main theme: an understanding of the essence of war, all wars. He wished to go from the particular to the universal such as you attempted to do in your Exhibition. The height of Thucydides’ History, however, is “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” and it is a fiction: it is not a verbatim of the actual speech. It was written by Thucydides himself. Some questions could be: does Thucydides’ History as an account of the Peloponnesian War come closer to the essence of war, the universal, than does Homer’s Iliad? Does an historian aspire to make myth? If Josef Stalin is correct in his statement “Only the winners get to write the history”, are not all historians engaged in writing myth (at best) or propaganda (at their worst)? Are modern historical accounts “science” or “myth” since to arrive at their statements of “truth” they must use words (rhetoric) rather than mathematics to make their judgements? Do modern historians give a sufficient account of their first principles?

The basic problem for history in its attempts to be a “science” is that in establishing the past as object and in establishing ourselves as the summonsers for its artefacts to give us their reasons, we can learn about the past, but we cannot learn from the past since our positions as summonsers already establish us as superior to that which is being studied. Since we have seen the kind of societies the “winners” of history have produced, perhaps it is time to look at what knowledge the “losers” of history might have to share with us. This is what “critical race theory” is all about. 

5. How can we distinguish between good and bad interpretations? Discuss with reference to the arts and one other area of knowledge.

What we commonly mean by “interpretation” is to provide an “explanation” for some thing that appeals to reason and to common sense. To say that the wildfires in California and Greece are attributable to “Jewish space lasers controlled by the Rothschilds” does not appeal to our reason and common sense, for instance. It is a “bad” interpretation and explanation for the phenomenon of wildfires.

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. It is associated with the thing’s “truth”. 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”, but to do so you must first turn that art into an object. In the Human Sciences attempts are made to find fixed, permanent principles that will lead to 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 on the “fixed” things that are the objects of nature.

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 of the activities called science or research. 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 the Greeks understood “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:  Continue reading “Prescribed Titles May 2022”

Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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