Some clarifications about TOK

The nature of the course

In some respects, TOK asks the question, “What do we know, and how do we know it?” and is like a course in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of knowledge and the differences between a) justified belief, and b) mere opinion. Using an epistemological definition of knowledge—justified true belief—tends to lead toward the conclusion that we in fact have very little knowledge, and most of what we can call knowledge is found in “areas of knowledge”(AOKs) like logic, mathematics, and the hard sciences.

In other respects, TOK asks the question, “How do we think?” and resembles a course in cognitive psychology. Here the focus is not so much on knowledge but on how our minds work. This approach to TOK may include things like faith and intuition, may put a much greater emphasis on emotion, and may be more interested in beliefs, even if they are false beliefs or unjustified beliefs.

In yet another sense, TOK focuses on how we organise knowledge, and how the various categories into which we divide our knowledge overlap, interact, compare, contrast, and sometimes break down altogether. Using this approach will involve careful attention to the knowledge frameworks that are included in the new TOK course guide for each area of knowledge.

It is useful to keep these three approaches to TOK in mind, and to be as clear as possible about which one is being used at any particular moment in the course. Each approach has value and advantages, while at the same time perhaps having weaknesses or drawbacks; try to think about what they are.

The Ways of Knowing

There is a tendency in TOK to speak and write about “ways of knowing” (WOKs) as if they were separate and independent, and to think of them quantitatively in relation to AOKs. For example, we might say that in maths we use reason 80% of the time, and emotion and sense perception are used only rarely; whereas in the arts we use reason very little but depend a great deal on emotion and sense perception.

You should resist this tendency. It gives a false picture of how our minds actually work. In fact the WOKs all work together, simultaneously and interactively. Try to think of them as organic, intertwined, and influencing one another. And don’t forget language as a WOK; it tends to be overlooked. We need language to express and describe emotions, to articulate our reasoning, to describe what our physical senses perceive. It is probably impossible to use only one or even two WOKs at a time; they are all at work, all the time. We will develop this idea as we go along in the course.

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Not all black and white; the most interesting bits are gray.