TOK questions

Knowledge issues, knowers and knowing

  • “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
  • “To talk of many things:
  • Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
  • Of cabbages—and kings ….” Lewis Carroll

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From Langemaat Inthinking Newsletter, Nov 2011


The essential questions related to each of the above hexagons are:
1. What does it mean?
2. What is the evidence?
3. How certain is it?
4. How else can we look at it?
5. What follows?
6. Who cares?
7. How is it similar to/different from…?

People know many things: they know when they are cold, or sick; they know if they are sad or happy, lonely or in love; they know how to make fire; they know that the sun will set and rise.
Nonetheless people rarely stop to think about the processes by which knowledge is produced, obtained or achieved, nor about why, under what circumstances, and in what ways knowledge is renewed or reshaped by different individuals and groups at different times or from different perspectives or approaches.
The questions in this guide are meant to provide opportunities to pause and reflect upon the complexity and richness of knowledge and the process of knowing, on the scope and limits of knowledge, as well as on the roles and responsibilities that knowledge may bring to us as individuals, groups or communities. As such, these questions focus on knowledge issues. The use of this term “knowledge issues” is an expressly wide one, the purpose of which is to allow students to undertake an exploration of a diversity of TOK questions that are relevant to them in their specific context. Precisely because of its breadth, however, it is important to provide guidance for teachers and students as to what is and, importantly, what is not a knowledge issue.

Knowledge issues

Knowledge issues are questions that directly refer to our understanding of the world, ourselves and others, in connection with the acquisition, search for, production, shaping and acceptance of knowledge. These issues are intended to open to inquiry and exploration not only problems but also strengths of knowledge. Students sometimes overlook the positive value of different kinds of knowledge, and the discriminatory power of methods used to search for knowledge, to question it, and to establish its validity. Knowledge issues can reveal how knowledge can be a benefit, a gift, a pleasure and a basis for further thought and action, just as they can uncover the possible uncertainties, biases in approach, or limitations relating to knowledge, ways of knowing, and the methods of verification and justification appropriate in different areas of knowledge.
Two examples:
  • Consider the question, “What is the value of distinguishing between what we know and what we don’t know?” In the context of problems of knowledge, the emphasis is likely to be on the good reasons we have for doubting whether the lines we draw between the two are as clear as we sometimes suppose them to be. In contrast, in the context of knowledge issues, the reasons we have to maintain the legitimacy and usefulness of the distinction are likely to come to the fore.
  • Alternatively, consider the question, “Is there one way of knowing that is best for acquiring knowledge?” In the context of problems of knowledge, the emphasis is likely to be on why over-reliance on or confidence in each way of knowing would be unwise; in the context of knowledge issues, reasons for relying on or trusting ways of knowing should also be considered.
In the broadest understanding of the term, knowledge issues include everything that can be approached from a TOK point of view (that is, in accordance with the TOK aims and objectives as they are formulated) and that allows a development, discussion or exploration from this point of view. For example, a simple question that is often raised by students, “Are teachers’ course handouts and textbooks always right?”, can be treated as a knowledge issue when correctly framed in the context of TOK aims and objectives. On the contrary, it can be the prompt for entirely trivial answers that have little or nothing to do with TOK.
It is to be expected that a good treatment of many knowledge issues will necessarily deal with several aspects described above and that these can be interwoven in different, equally relevant ways. For this reason the treatment of knowledge issues can be distinguished from other issues that might arise in the context of a particular subject area. For example, a consideration of sense perception exclusively from the point of view of the psychology or biology of perception is not a TOK treatment of a knowledge issue.

Nature of knowing

  • In English there is one word “know”, while French and Spanish, for example, each has two (savoir/connaître and saber/conocer). In what ways do various languages classify the concepts associated with “to know”?
  • In English, French, Spanish or Chinese, for example, what is the relationship between the different ways of expressing “know”: “they know of it”, “they know about it”, “they really know it”, “they know that person”, “they know that this is so”, “they know how to do it”? Are there other ways of using the verb “to know”?
  • How do “believing that” and “believing in” differ? How does belief differ from knowledge?
  • What are the differences between the following: information, data, belief, faith, opinion, knowledge and wisdom?

Knowledge communities

  • In the TOK diagram, the centre is represented as both an individual and a group. To what extent can we distinguish between knowing as an individual and knowing as a group or community enterprise?

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  • How much of one’s knowledge depends on interaction with other knowers?
  • Are there types of knowledge that are specifically linked to particular communities of knowers?
  • To what extent can we act individually in creating new knowledge? What are the strengths of working in a knowledge community? What are the dangers?
  • Is common sense just what is taken for granted in a community? How can we decide when to question common sense?
  • Presented with the belief system of a community of knowers, how can we decide what we personally believe? How can we decide which beliefs we ought to check further? In the end does it just amount to a question of trust? If so, how can we decide who to trust, and on which issues?
  • Do we need to grow up in a human community in order to develop ways of knowing (sense perception, language, reason and emotion)? Or are we born “hard wired” to be able to use them? Is community more important in some ways of knowing than others?
  • In what sense is a community of knowers like bees constructing the labyrinths of their hive or a group of builders constructing a building?

Knowers and sources of knowledge

  • How is knowledge gained? What are the sources? To what extent might these vary according to age, education or cultural background?
  • What role does personal experience play in the formation of knowledge claims?
  • To what extent does personal or ideological bias influence our knowledge claims?
  • Does knowledge come from inside or outside? Do we construct reality or do we recognize it?
  • “Whoever acquires knowledge and does not practise it resembles him who ploughs his land and leaves it unsown.” (Sa’di) Are there responsibilities that necessarily come with knowing something or knowing how to do something? To whom might these responsibilities be owed?
  • In what sense, if any, can a machine be said to know something? How can anyone believe that a machine can think?
  • When a machine gives an instruction to press a certain button to make it work, where is that knowledge or awareness located? Does technology allow some knowledge to reside outside the human knower? Is knowledge even a “thing” that resides somewhere?

Justification of knowledge claims

  • “If the frog tells you that the crocodile is dead, do not doubt it.” What might this Ghanaian proverb suggest about who it is that provides the justification for a knowledge claim? What is the difference between “I am certain” and “It is certain”? Is conviction sufficient for a knowledge claim to be validated? What are the implications of accepting passionate, personal belief as knowledge?
  • How are knowledge claims justified? Are the following types of justification all equally reliable: intuition, sense perception, evidence, reasoning, memory, authority, group consensus, and divine revelation?
  • Why should time be taken to assess critically the nature of knowledge claims?

Linking questions

  • Do knowledge claims transcend different communities or cultures? What differences exist between public and private justifications? To what extent might this distinction between private knowledge and public knowledge be culturally dependent?
  • Do the images of a web, building blocks, concentric circles, a spiral, or a grid make a convincing description of the interconnections in the ways of knowing and areas of knowledge? In what ways might these metaphors be useful?
  • To what extent is knowledge about the past different in kind from other kinds of knowledge?
  • Does making a knowledge claim carry any particular obligation or responsibility for the knower?
What the TOK Syllabus has to say about … Knowledge Words
Overall Summary:
The TOK guide actually calls these words ‘Linking Questions’ but they are neither questions nor is it necessarily obvious what they are meant to be linking. A better way to think of them is as key ‘Knowledge Words’ that you should know about and attempt to use in your essays and presentations. These words are below, the key ones are highlighted in red:
Belief Evidence Interpretation
Certainty Experience Intuition
Culture Explanation Technology
Truth Values
Questions about … Belief
‘First there is a time when we believe everything without reasons, then for a little while we believe with discrimination, then we believe nothing whatever, and then we believe everything again—and, moreover, give reasons why we believe everything.’ Georg Christoph Lichtenburg
· What may be meant by Ugo Betti’s comment that “When you want to believe in something you also have to believe in everything that’s necessary for believing in it”?
· How do beliefs about the world, and beliefs about what is valuable, influence the pursuit of knowledge?
· To what extent can beliefs be justified on the basis of ways of knowing? To what extent should they be justified this way?
· Does some degree of unjustified belief exist within each element of the TOK diagram?
Questions about … Truth
They who know the Truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it. Confucius
· How useful are the truth tests of coherence, correspondence and pragmatism in arriving at knowledge?
· Is there such a thing as false knowledge?
· What is the difference between justified true belief and true belief?
· To what extent does the truth of a statement depend on the language used to express it?
Questions about … Certainty
‘We know accurately only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases.’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
· What may be meant by Martin Luther King’s claim that “Nothing is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”, or the following lines by W B Yeats? The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
· To what extent is certainty attainable within each of the ways of knowing or within each of the areas of knowledge?
· In the absence of evidence, is certainty possible? Can there be certainty about a claim that is false?
Questions about … Evidence
‘Tell a man there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he’ll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he’ll have to touch to be sure.’ Anon
· What constitutes good evidence within the different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge?
· Do sense perception, reason and emotion have the same weight in providing good evidence for claims within the different areas of knowledge? Must evidence always be expressed in words?
· Can a fact exist without a context?
Questions about … Intuition
‘Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.’ Jonas Salk
· In attempting to understand what is commonly called “intuition”, is it best to think of it as a rapid cognitive process or perhaps, as some say, as an irrational or unmediated awareness of phenomena?
· Germaine Greer once commented that “The frequently celebrated female intuition…is after all only a facility for observing tiny insignificant aspects of behaviour and forming an empirical conclusion which cannot be syllogistically examined.” Does “feminine intuition” exist? Do men’s ways of knowing differ from those of women?
· To what extent is intuition to be taken seriously in the different areas of knowledge?
Questions about … Experience
· What kinds of knowledge can be gained only through experience?
· In which areas of knowledge is experience of least importance?
· What are the dangers of equating personal experience and knowledge?
· CAS is often described as “experiential education”. In what ways is learning in CAS similar to or different from learning in other areas of the Diploma Programme?
Questions about … Explanation
‘Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible’ Eugène Ionesco
· What characteristics must an explanation possess to be considered good within the different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge?
· Must all good explanations make predictions with the same degree of success?
· What are the differences between persuasive explanations, good explanations and true explanations?
Questions about … Interpretation
· To what extent do the classification systems (labels and categories) adopted in the pursuit of knowledge affect the knowledge we obtain?
· How does interpretation occur within areas of knowledge? Within ways of knowing? Are some ways of knowing less open to interpretation than others?
Questions about … Technology
‘The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers’ Sydney Harris
· In what ways has technology expanded knowledge? In what ways has it affected how much we value the different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge? What fields of study have been founded on technological developments?
· Does information technology, like deduction, simply allow the knower to arrange existing knowledge in a different way, without adding anything, or is this arrangement itself knowledge in some sense?
· To what extent do information and communication technologies influence the way we think about the world? Who controls these technologies and what effect does that have? To what extent do these technologies determine what we regard as valuable or important?
· What is the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom? Are there technologies specifically designed to impart data, information, knowledge and wisdom?#
Questions about … Culture
‘Just because we aren’t all the same doesn’t mean we have nothing in common.’ Kirk Kerekes
· What beliefs or knowledge, if any, are independent of culture?
· How do cultures differ with respect to the ways of knowing and areas of knowledge that they value above others? How would one justify valuing one way, or one area, more than another?
· If one looks at most western compilations of quotations, it seems that most are attributed to dead, white, European males. Why might this be so?
Questions about … Values
· How do values underlie the pursuit of truth in the different areas of knowledge? How, if at all, do they influence methodology?
· To what extent do the different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge influence the values adopted by individuals and societies?