Areas of Knowledge

< IB


What is Theory of Knowledge?Edit

The main question in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is 'How does one know?' The course encourages one to think critically about the subjects they are studying rather than passively accepting what one is taught. Critical thinking involves such things as asking good questions, using language with care and precision, supporting one's ideas with evidence, arguing coherently, and making sound judgments. However, one is encouraged to think critically in every subject that one studies. TOK is designed to help reflect on further developing skills acquired in class.

Knowers and knowingEdit

Since TOK is concerned with the question 'How does one know?', one naturally needs to spend some time talking about the nature of knowledge. Among the questions that will be asked includes; What is knowledge? How does knowledge differ from belief? What is the difference between knowledge, information, and wisdom? Should one seek the truth at any price, or are there some things it would be better not to know?

Ways of knowingEdit

In TOK, it can be said that there are four main ways of acquiring knowledge about the world; perception, language, reason, and emotion. Take any thing that you claim to know and ask yourself how you know and you can trace it back to one of these four sources; either you saw it, or you heart it, or you read it, or you reasoned it out, or you have a gut-feeling that it is true. Despite their value, none of these ways of knowing is infallible. In fact, they are all double-edged in the sense that they can be both a source of knowledge and an obstacle to it. For example, many of the knowledge claims are based on perception, but our senses sometimes deceive us. Much of our knowledge is communicated to us 'second-hand' by other people, but the language they use may mislead us. We price ourselves on being rational animals, but we often make errors in our reasoning and jump too quickly to conclusions. Finally, we sometimes appeal to feeling and intuitions to justify our knowledge claims, but they are not infallible guides to the truth.

Areas of KnowledgeEdit

TOK explorers various Areas of Knowledge (AOK); mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, history, the arts, ethics, and religion. In each area of knowledge the fundamental question is raised; 'How does one know?', and a consideration of the role played by perception, language, reason, and emotion in the subject in question is evaluated. Some of the 'big questions' are also touched upon, which lie on the frontier of knowledge, and include;

  • Why is mathematics so useful?
  • Does science prove things?
  • What makes human beings different?
  • Can the past be known?
  • Do we have free will?
  • Are there any universal values?
  • Is everyone selfish?
  • What is the purpose of art?
  • Does life have a meaning?

A consideration of the similarities and differences between the above areas of knowledge and a raise of various interdisciplinary questions that will help make one think about how different subjects are related to one another and to develop a more coherent and inclusive picture of the world.

The Problem of KnowledgeEdit

We live in a strange and perplexing world. Despite the explosive growth of knowledge in recent decades, we are confronted by a bewildering array of contradictory beliefs. We are told that astronomers have made great progress in understanding the universe in which we live, yet many people still belief in astrology. Scientists claim that the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, yet some insist that dinosaurs and human beings lived simultaneously. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, but it is rumoured in some quarters that the landings were faked by NASA. A work of art is hailed as a masterpiece by some critics and dismissed as junk by others. Millions of people believe in God yet atheists insist that 'God is dead.' Faced with such a confusion of different opinions, how are we to make sense of things and develop a coherent picture of reality?

Given one's school education, one might think of knowledge as a relatively unproblematic commodity consisting of various facts found in textbooks that have been proved to be true. But things are not as simple as that. After all, if one has attended a school one hundred or even five hundred years ago, one would have learnt a different set of 'truths.' This suggests that knowledge is not static, but has a history and changes over time. Yesterday's revolution in thought becomes today's common sense, and today's common sense may go on to become tomorrows' superstition. So what guarantee is there that our current understanding of things is correct? Despite the intellectual progress of the last five hundred years, future generations may look back on our much-vaunted achievements and dismiss our science as crude, our arts as naive, and our ethics as barbaric.

When one considers themselves from the perspective of the vast reaches of time and space, further doubts arise. According to cosmologists, the universe has been in existence for about 15 billion (15,000,000,000) years. If one imagines that huge amount of time compressed into one year running from January to December, then the earliest human beings do not appear on the scene until around 10:30 p.m. on the 31st of December, fire was only domesticated at 11:46 p.m., and the whole recorded history occupies only the last ten seconds of the cosmic year. Since we have been trying to make sense of the world in a systematic way for only a minute fraction of time, there is no guarantee that we have got it right. Furthermore, it turns out that in cosmic terms we are also pretty small. According to astronomers, there are ten times more starts int he night sky than grains of sand in all the world's deserts and beaches. Yet we flatter ourselves that we have discovered t he laws that apply to all times and all places. Since we are familiar with only a minute fraction of the universe, this seems like a huge leap of faith. Perhaps it will turn out that some of the deeper truths in life, the universe, and everything are simply beyond human comprehension. 1.1 Scale in history Doing history forces us to make choices about the scale of the history with which we are concerned. Suppose we are interested in Asian history. Are we concerned with Asia as a continent, or China, or Shandong Province? Or in historical terms, are we concerned with the whole of the Chinese Revolution, the base area of Yenan, or the specific experience of a handful of villages in Shandong during the 1940s? And given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes a big difference to the findings.

Historians differ fundamentally around the decisions they make about scale. William Hinton provides what is almost a month-to-month description of the Chinese Revolution in Fanshen village—a collection of a few hundred families (Hinton, 1966). The book covers a few years and the events of a few hundred people. Likewise, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a deep treatment of the villagers of Montaillou; once again, a single village and a limited time (Le Roy Ladurie, 1979). William Cronon provides a focused and detailed account of the development of Chicago as a metropolis for the middle of the United States (Cronon, 1991). These histories are limited in time and space, and they can appropriately be called “micro-history.”

At the other end of the scale spectrum, William McNeill provides a history of the world's diseases (McNeill, 1976); Massimo Livi-Bacci offers a history of the world's population (Livi-Bacci, 2007); and De Vries and Goudsblom provide an environmental history of the world (De Vries and Goudsblom, 2002). In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time. These histories can certainly be called “macro-history.”

Both micro- and macro-histories have important shortcomings. Micro-history leaves us with the question, “how does this particular village shed light on anything larger?”. And macro-history leaves us with the question, “how do these large assertions about causality really work out in the context of Canada or Sichuan?”. The first threatens to be so particular as to lose all interest, whereas the second threatens to be so general as to lose all empirical relevance to real historical processes.

There is a third choice available to the historian that addresses both points. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional-for example, G. William Skinner's analysis of the macro-regions of China (Skinner, 1977). It might be national—for example, a social and political history of Indonesia. And it might be supra-national—for example, an economic history of Western Europe or comparative treatment of Eurasian history. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

2. Continental philosophy of history The topic of history has been treated frequently in modern European philosophy. A long, largely German, tradition of thought looks at history as a total and comprehensible process of events, structures, and processes, for which the philosophy of history can serve as an interpretive tool. This approach, speculative and meta-historical, aims to discern large, embracing patterns and directions in the unfolding of human history, persistent notwithstanding the erratic back-and-forth of particular historical developments. Modern philosophers raising this set of questions about the large direction and meaning of history include Vico, Herder, and Hegel. A somewhat different line of thought in the continental tradition that has been very relevant to the philosophy of history is the hermeneutic tradition of the human sciences. Through their emphasis on the “hermeneutic circle” through which humans undertake to understand the meanings created by other humans—in texts, symbols, and actions—hermeneutic philosophers such as Schleiermacher (1838), Dilthey (1860–1903), and Ricoeur (2000) offer philosophical arguments for emphasizing the importance of narrative interpretation within our understanding of history

The Nature of KnowledgeEdit

Having looked at the problem of knowledge, we now need to say something about the nature of knowledge. The word 'knowledge' is what might be described as a thick concept in what is not exhausted by a short definition and can only be understood through experience and reflection. All of this is simply a reflection on the meaning of the word 'knowledge.' Having said that, a definition can still give us a useful preliminary hook for thinking about the meaning of a word. So we shall begin by exploring a definition of knowledge as justified true belief. But it is important to keep in mind that this should be the starting point for reflection rather than its finishing point.

Ways of KnowingEdit

Warning: Display title "Ways of Knowing" overrides earlier display title "Theory of Knowledge". Language




Areas of KnowledgeEdit

Warning: Display title "Areas of Knowledge" overrides earlier display title "Ways of Knowing". Mathematics

The Natural Sciences

The Human Sciences


The Arts