Knowers Perspective Tok Essay Introduction

So how do we know? TOK website for IB students.

So how do we know ?

Theory of Knowledge at IB DP
After years of digesting knowledge claims from various sources (not in the least from your own teachers), it is worth taking a step back to ask yourself the question 'How do we know?'. This question is central to the Theory of Knowledge course within the IB Diploma programme, but it is relevant outside the confines of this curriculum as well. This website aims to introduce you to the main concepts of the TOK course and to prepare you for its assessments. However, it also hopes to foster your interest in critical thinking about knowledge in a broad sense. With the expansion of the media through the use of modern technologies, we come across a staggering amount of knowledge claims on a daily basis. In this "post-truth age", it seems increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, news from fake news, and knowledge from propaganda. Perhaps it is now more important than ever to reflect upon what counts as knowledge, what constitutes a fact, who possesses and represents knowledge and under what circumstances we should trust expert opinion. I hope that this website will inspire you to evaluate knowledge claims and to ask questions about knowledge.  
As a Belgian national, I am a huge fan of Magritte's paintings (see above). In 'La trahison des images' [Ceci n'est pas une pipe] Magritte challenges our preconceived notions, which often find their origins within representational models of reality. We all know that representation and reality are not the same thing, yet we often need reminding about this fact. Our world view is shaped by our language, our cultural background and years of education. Yet, the world does not exist in an absolute sense. As Wade Davis illustrates in his TED talk on endangered cultures, one should rather speak of 'multiple models of reality'. The methods we employ to gather knowledge are heavily influenced by the model of reality we are most familiar with.
I invite you to go on a journey in which you critically evaluate yourself as a 'knower' within your 'knowledge community'. In Theory of Knowledge classes, you will explore knowledge questions related to the tools we use to gather knowledge. We call them the eight ways of knowing: sense perception, reason, language, memory, intuition, faith, imagination and emotion. You will make links between various areas of knowledge whilst evaluating the boundaries that confine them. You will learn more about the methods we employ to gather knowledge in different subject areas and discover the historical development of and shifts within cognitive paradigms. 
Theory of Knowledge is an assessed subject at IB DP level. On the assessment page, you will find more information about knowledge questions as well as the assessed presentations and essays. I have tried to add some essay questions of the 2015 specification to the sections of the website where I feel they could be relevant. Nevertheless, all Theory of Knowledge essay questions are open ended and could consequently be applied to a wide range of ways of knowing/areas of knowledge. 

Important notice on using materials from this website.

Dear students, you are very welcome to use ideas and materials from this website to write your TOK essay. However, it is important that you reference correctly to avoid issues with plagiarism when you submit your essay.
Teachers, you can use my resources and PowerPoints freely in your lessons, however, you cannot sell any resources from this website or pass them on as your own creation. Please reference in the same way as we would expect from students (according to international copyright laws).

 Introduction: What does it mean to know?

Theory of Knowledge classes centre around the question 'How do we know what we know?'. In TOK you are invited to wonder and wander, to reflect upon knowledge you have gathered throughout the years and to analyse yourself as a knower. What does it mean to know? Which words do you use in your language to express knowledge and knowing? Which different types of knowing are there? Check the introductory PowerPoint, grouping task and Powtoon clip (below) as an introduction to TOK.

Introduction to TOK powerpoint.
TIP: For the best view of the powerpoints, download the files. For a quick browse through them, check the scribd files (some lay-out distorted).

File Size: 1257 kb
File Type: pptx
Download File

File Size: 11 kb
File Type: docx
Download File

What does it mean to know?

How do you view your world and why?

Understanding perspectives is one of the key concepts in Theory of Knowledge. You may well (literally and symbolically) see your world in line with the map below left. You should ask yourself why this is the case. Personally, I was brought up with a Eurocentric world view and despite the generally excellent efforts of my history teachers, the single story I learned at school largely ignored Islamic, Chinese or Native American civilisations. I was left with the idea that my unmapped historical territories would somehow be less important to history as a whole. Nevertheless, the repeated shifts in cognitive paradigms throughout history illustrate that for each interpretation of the world, there may exist another, equally valid world view. In addition to understanding and appreciating different perspectives, students are encouraged to become more sensitive to the theories of knowledge of others in TOK classes. The introduction of Indigenous Knowledge as an area of knowledge within the new specification allows us to explore how different peoples make sense of their world in different ways. All too often we think in binary oppositions. We oppose West to East, man to woman, reason to emotion, 'developed' to 'primitive'. Whilst doing so, we attach value judgements to each element in the opposite binary pairs; and we usually value our side of the coin that bit more than the other side. We also exclude whatever is in the middle of the continuum and consequently simplify our interpretation of the world or reality. French feminist Cixous claims that this binary thinking finds its origins in patriarchal society. Whatever the cause may be of such thought, it is important to remain open-minded and to steer clear of false dilemmas, which are all too often implicitly embedded in cognitive paradigms of knowledge communities. Magritte (see above) makes us question through his art how we tend to forget the differences between representation and reality. We can use language and symbols to 'map' reality. Within our language we use words as 'signifiers' to denote something else ('the signified'). But all too often we blend the signifier with the signified. According to Charles Sanders Peirce, we end up thinking through these signs. Just like we end up thinking through maps. And we forget what is really out there... Baudrillard takes this notion even further with his conception of 'the hyperreal'. Maps (in the broad sense of the word) can be useful as conceptual and practical tools. However, in TOK you are invited to explore to what extent accuracy has given way to simplification through 'maps' in the broad sense of the word.  A heightened awareness of the limitations as well as the strengths of the representational capacities of maps is useful in your analysis of knowledge as a map. The TOK guide states: "A useful metaphor for examining knowledge in TOK is a map. A map is a representation, or picture, of the world. It is necessarily simplified—indeed its power derives from this fact. Items not relevant to the particular purpose of the map are omitted. For example, one would not expect to see every tree and bush faithfully represented on a street map designed to aid navigation around a city—just the basic street plan will do. A city street map, however, is quite a different thing to a building plan of a house or the picture of a continent in an atlas. So knowledge intended to explain one aspect of the world, say, its physical nature, might look really quite different to knowledge that is designed to explain, for example, the way human beings interact." (p.16, TOK Guide, First Assessment 2015).

Possible essay questions about mapping of knowledge, representation & reality:

“A map is only useful if it simplifies things.” To what extent does this apply to knowledge? (Specimen 2015)
"The knower's perspective is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." To what extent do you agree? (May 2016)
"In knowledge there is always a trade-off between accuracy and simplicity." Evaluate this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)

The nature of knowledge

The concept of knowledge is a rather problematic one. We are continually confronted with knowledge claims in our daily lives, but how do we know whether these claims are well founded? On what basis should we accept or reject something as knowledge? How do we know if something is true? Can we ever truly know what is really out there? Can we know anything with certainty given that knowledge seems provisional (consider the historical development of disciplines or areas of knowledge) ? Because of the apparent lack of certainty in our search for knowledge (and truth), some people resort to the position of radical doubt (Lagemaat, 2011). This is a difficult position to live with. If we doubt everything and everyone, should we even bother getting closer to the truth? Others, however, feel that we can come up with valid justifications of knowledge claims and that our continual search for knowledge is invaluable. According to Richard van de Lagemaat, coherence plays a big role when establishing knowledge. It is nevertheless important to remember that what is coherent with one person's world view, will not necessarily be so for someone else. We may also fall victim of confirmation bias when we analyse a knowledge claim. Sometimes, we resort to more 'convenient truths', but is there really room for pragmatism when we seek truth? (Lagemaat, 2011). Knowledge can be provisional. What is accepted as knowledge today, may be discarded tomorrow. You can easily find examples of knowledge claims of the past that are not accepted anymore. This is true in many fields: some religions have disappeared completely,  the geocentric model is obsolete, what is considered "art" has been reviewed repeatedly with changing cultural movements. When you think about this, you may wonder what this changeable nature of knowledge implies for our search for knowledge. You may also wonder whether the search for knowledge is less provisional or dependent upon the beliefs of groups and/or individuals in some areas of knowledge? If so, does this mean that the knowledge they produce is more 'valuable'? 
Within TOK you will explore the difference between knowing something as an individual (personal knowledge) and as a member of a group (shared knowledge). We make this distinction because it is important to become aware that what you accept as knowledge as an individual member of a group may be heavily dependent upon group membership as such. Speakers of the same language, students of the same 'schools of thought', or members of the same cultural group will often accept similar knowledge claims. Yet, as mentioned before, knowledge is not stable. What we consider to be knowledge within our community today may be discarded tomorrow, and there are many geo-cultural variations in what counts as knowledge today. Sometimes, we can establish knowledge on our own. We can construct personal knowledge through personal experiences. We can also 'personalise' second hand knowledge by using our ways of knowing to evaluate and assess what is presented to us as knowledge. It is essential to critically engage with knowledge that has been passed on to you. Authority worship and group think can be dangerous, as the documentary "Five Steps to Tyranny" highlights. Philosophers and thinkers have created many 'theories of knowledge'. While it is impossible to give you a definite answer to what constitutes true knowledge or even truth, it is worth exploring several perspectives. The BBC A History of Ideas site is a good starting point for further research in this area. The dynamic relationship between personal and shared knowledge, or the dialogue between different perspectives, is often at the heart of the creation of new knowledge; the revision (and hopefully improvement) of our knowledge maps.
Remember that within TOK assessments, you should avoid giving short definitions of what knowledge constitutes (be particularly careful with a quick mention of knowledge as justified true beliefwithout further explanations or implications). Within the context of TOK, you could explore the metaphor of knowledge as a map. According to the TOK guide: "A map is a representation, or picture, of the world. It is necessarily simplified—indeed its power derives from this fact. Items not relevant to the particular purpose of the map are omitted. For example, one would not expect to see every tree and bush faithfully represented on a street map designed to aid navigation around a city—just the basic street plan will do. A city street map, however, is quite a different thing to a building plan of a house or the picture of a continent in an atlas. So knowledge intended to explain one aspect of the world, say, its physical nature, might look really quite different to knowledge that is designed to explain, for example, the way human beings interact." (TOK Guide First assessment 2015, p16). The simplifications embedded in mapping are both useful and problematic, of course. You could explore how this works in various areas of knowledge. 

Possible essay questions about the nature of knowledge:
"Knowledge within a discipline develops according to the principles of natural selection." How useful is this metaphor? (May 2016)
"In knowledge here is always a trade-off between accuracy and simplicity." Evaluate this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
“Ways of knowing operate differently in personal and shared knowledge.” Assess this claim. (November 2016)

​So what should we believe?

Information, knowledge and propaganda.
To what extent do the media manipulate information?
How does language create webs of illusions of knowledge? 
What is the difference between information, knowledge and propaganda? 

​You only need to be browsing the Internet for a few minutes before you come across a range of knowledge claims. It can be difficult to distinguish between genuine, well founded knowledge claims and pure and utter nonsense. Throughout the Theory of Knowledge course you are encouraged to become that bit more critical and that bit less gullible by developing real life situations into knowledge questions. As Richard Van de Lagemaat puts it, it is better to ask yourself the question 'How should we believe?' rather than 'What should we believe?'.  To distinguish between fact and fiction in your search for knowledge, it is also invaluable to analyse yourself as a knower. By evaluating the way in which the eight ways of knowing may help us to make sense of the world, we can critically examine the validity of knowledge claims and their justifications -- rather than just debunking them without being able to justify our point of view. The ways of knowing can be a check on our instinctive judgements and they prevent us from deluding ourselves.

Should you trust your first impressions and instinctive judgements?

How do we check the validity of knowledge claims? Under which circumstance can we trust expert opinions? Finding the right balance between gullibility and scepticism is not always easy. (Hover over/click on the photos to see their captions and context).

How gullibility leads to (the acceptance of ) erroneous knowledge claims.

Shermer on "patternicity" & why people believe weird things.

​These TED talks by Shermer are very popular in TOK classes. They discuss how and why people (according to Shermer) feel compelled to believe strange things. The examples given by Shermer to illustrate human gullibility are certainly entertaining. According to Shermer, we are pattern seeking animals. To guarantee our survival, we have been looking for patterns for centuries (better to be safe than sorry) . Shermer argues that we still feel compelled to see patterns, whether they exist or not and he illustrates this in "The pattern behind self-deception". 
Recommended further reading: The believing brain (Shermer 2011) and Why people believe strange things.

TOP TIP FOR TED TALKS:If your find it difficult to follow the arguments (especially if English is not your first language), you can always check out the transcripts on the TED websites themselves. If you want  to quote a TED talk, click here to find out how.
Possible essay questions on patterns, knowledge claims & the interaction between shared and personal knowledge:
  • To what extent do ways of knowing prevent us from deluding ourselves? Justify your answer with reference to at least one area of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
  • “All knowledge depends on the recognition of patterns and anomalies.” Consider the extent to which you agree with this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
  • There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge (May 2015).
  • “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgements.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss. (November 2015)
  •  “In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2015)
  • “The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (November 2015)
  • Is explanation a prerequisite for prediction? Explore this question in relation to two areas of knowledge. (November 2015
  • "Knowledge within a disciple develops according to the principles of natural selection." How useful is this metaphor? (May 2016)
  • "Without application in the world, the value of knowledge is greatly diminished." Consider this claim with respect to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
  • "In knowledge there is always a trade-off between accuracy and simplicity." Evaluate this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
  • “Conflicting knowledge claims always involve a difference in perspective.” Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2016)

Further reading & keeping a TOK journal

Throughout the Theory of Knowledge course, your teachers will touch upon ideas and concepts which you should explore further independently. I would suggest keeping an electronic 'TOK journal' (or file) in which you jot down your own ideas, add completed knowledge frameworks (see below), collect articles you have read, add links to documentaries you watched and note any further reading you have done throughout the course. Don't forget to mention your sources, as you will need them for your assessed presentation and essay. There are some excellent online software resources available that can help you with keeping track of your resources.

The historical development of knowledge, ideas and concepts.

One of the books which I truly recommend for further reading is called '1001 Ideas That Changed the Way we Think' by Robert Arp (2013 Quintessence). The book mentions the 1001 ideas in a concise way (about half a page per idea), which is perfect in the context of TOK, where you need to give brief examples to illustrate your points. Arthur Caplan (author of the preface) mentions that "it is only through an engagement with great ideas that we can find meaning and purpose in our lives." [Note that one of the May 2015 essay questions was centred around this exact creation of meaning and purpose in our personal lives through knowledge.]
Caplan goes on to say that: "These ideas enable us not only to decide on but also to defend the personal views that we assume regarding important matters." 
In TOK you are encouraged to explore how we gain knowledge; how we engage with some ideas and reject others. You are invited to explore the historical development of knowledge, as well as the underlying assumptions embedded in knowledge claims you have accepted. An exposure to the historical development of ideas, and indeed knowledge, leads to the discovery of different perspectives. Experts disagree, have disagreed and will continue to disagree on what should be accepted as knowledge. Their personal perspective, the general historical and geographical context, the preferred methodology as well as other driving forces in one's quest for knowledge will influence their stance. In addition, also non-experts will be heavily influenced by the above factors when they decide which knowledge claims to accept and reject.
Ethics is an area where knowledge claims sometimes veer to the dogmatic.  Caplan asks if there is "an absolute moral ethic that you should always follow, as Plato claims." Yet, if we consider historical and geographical variations, where opposing moral principles and knowledge claims seem to co-exist and contradict one another, this position seems untenable. After years of religious morality, science and ethics meet within Bentham's utilitarianism and  utilitarianism "provides a fascinating antidote to centuries of morality reliant on divine or royal authority, virtue and inviolate principles." (Caplan, 2013). But, are Bentham's moral theories still appealing today? And why do some religious ethics gain in popularity today?
Robert Arp's book explores a range of areas of knowledge (without explicitly calling them so) and their contributions to knowledge as a whole. For example, Caplan questions what it is "that we actually see when looking at art, as John Berger asks?" In TOK we evaluate the role of the Arts in the creation of knowledge. We look at its language, methodology and historical evolution. Some artists' contribute to knowledge by breaking through conventions and established knowledge frameworks; by asking us to 'see' differently.
What is accepted as knowledge one day, may be rejected another. This can easily be illustrated with an example from the human and/or natural sciences [opinions regarding classifications may differ on this one]. In his preface, Caplan asks the reader if s/he 'agree[s] with the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual classification of what is "normal" with respect to mental health.' The history of knowledge regarding mental health is rather contradictory to say the least and it may surprise you that homosexuality was only removed from the APA's list of mental illnesses in 1973. The history of the treatments used to cure the latter 'mental illness' ranges from the absurd to the rather cruel. The treatments of women's 'hysteria' provides another interesting starting point for further research (note how gender-biased language -hysteria/hysterectomy- plays a pivotal role here).  In brief, the above mentioned book, as well as many other 'real life situations' provide much food for thought in TOK terms. As you will soon notice, TOK is everywhere and your input is at least as important as what your TOK teachers provide you with in classes.

Fantastic site with concise explanations of great ideas. Useful for essay examples: 

Possible essay questions on historical development of knowledge:

  • "The knower's perspective is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." To what extent do you you agree? (M2016)
  • "Knowledge between a discipline develops according to the principles of natural selection." How useful is this metaphor? (M 2016)
  • “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (M 2015)
  • “None of us is as smart as all of us” (Eric Schmidt). Discuss the extent to which you agree with this claim with reference to personal and shared knowledge. (Specimen)

Knowledge Frameworks & the TOK guide: 
linking areas of knowledge and ways of knowing

To be successful at TOK, it is important that you understand what the subject is about. It is not just a philosophy course and not just a critical thinking course, even though there are obvious overlaps. Make sure you have read the TOK guide before you jump to conclusions as to what the course is all about. To help students think about knowledge, the TOK guide has introduced the "knowledge frameworks". They are useful tools to embed TOK concepts into the exploration of your areas of knowledge. 

The Theory of Knowledge guide (2015)

File Size: 1821 kb
File Type: pdf
Download File

Knowledge frameworks for specific areas of knowledge (see TOK Guide 2015):

Possible essay questions related to knowledge frameworks:

"In gaining knowledge, each area of knowledge uses a network of ways of knowing." Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
"Without application in the world, the value of knowledge is greatly diminished." Consider this claim with respect to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
"To what extent do the concepts that we use shape the conclusions that we reach? (May 2016)

An Gulinck

*Theory of Knowledge Coordinator
Jerudong International School (Brunei)
*Theory of Knowledge Teacher
​The British International School (Vietnam)
*Member of the IBO TOK Curriculum Review team.

MA Women and Literature in English, UK (distinction),
MA Germanic Languages, Belgium (distinction).
PGCE French, UK.

This website could not have been created without Richard van de Lagemaat's wonderful handbook 'Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma' (Cambridge University Press, 2011). It is, I believe, an excellent textbook for students and teachers of Theory of Knowledge. The second edition (2015) of Lagemaat's textbook is now in line with the 2015 specification. To introduce the changes in the specification, I have also been inspired by materials from the TOK guide (first examination 2015) and the Theory of Knowledge Course Companion by Dombrowski, Rotenberg and Bick (Oxford University Press, 2013). Last but not least, I would like to thank all the teachers of Jerudong International School who have shared their ideas, TOK lesson materials, PowerPoints and Lunchtime Lectures.

Beauty- seeing is believing?

The Dove commercial transforms 'the girl next door' into a billboard beauty. Which questions does this raise about sense perception as a way of knowing?

Further questions:
  • ​How would you define beauty?
  • Can we 'calculate' beauty through Maths?
  • Is there a scientific basis for beauty? Or is it a culturally relative concept?
Dubious knowledge claims in advertising.

Harry Enfield's parody of knowledge claims about women.

Battling bad science:
​We feel that scientific proof in truth go hand in hand. But is this always the case?

Dangers of authority worship
A truly excellent documentary on the importance of the two way relationship between shared and personal knowledge.


File Size: 268 kb
File Type: pdf
Download File

File Size: 175 kb
File Type: pdf
Download File

"The greatest obstacle to progress is not the absence of knowledge, but the illusion of knowledge. "                  

Daniel Boorstin, social historian and writer (1914-2004). 

How to do a TOK presentation?

Saturday, October 13, 2007    

A TOK presentation is another important component of this course. One third of your final grade is based on the presentation, so you should really try your best.

This year we have to film all our presentations and send the films to the IB for assessment, so it is particularly important that we have high quality presentations. What would a really good presentation be like?

To get an idea of this we will firstly look at the assessment criteria. In my next post I will show you some video samples produced by IBO and comment them. But now let's look at the assessment criteria of presentations.

Your presentation will be assessed using four different criteria:

  1. Identification of knowledge issues

    An excellent presentation identifies a knowledge issue that is clearly relevant to the real life situation/contemporary problem

    Lets imagine you would want to a presentation on Is globalisation ethical? How could you link such a 'big' topic to a real life situation?

    You could start by researching the idea of globalisation and ethical debate around it. In about 2 minutes I was able to find an interesting New York Times article through regarding rights and wrongs of globalisation. This contains real life information about globalisation, such as what people in different countries think about it.

  2. Treatment of knowledge issues.

    An excellent presentation shows a good understanding of knowledge issues in the context of real life situation/contemporary problem

    Does globalisation have anything to do with your life or is it just a big concept?

    Let's think about it.

    Did you buy ice coffee today in Flintstones? If you did you supported a multinational coffee company which most likely pays peanuts to coffee farmers in Colombia. That was an ethical decision on your part with global impact although you were just wanted to have a cup of ice coffee. Same logic applies to many other products you consume.

    Tell me what globalisation and ethics mean for your life. Tell me what they mean to those farmers in Colombia. Tell me what they mean to that big multinational company? Give me your interpretations. Get it?

  3. Knower's perspective

    To get an excellent grade you should provide arguments and examples, show an individual approach and demonstrate why your presentation topic is significant.

    Again your personal voice is being emphasised. You should actually try to argue something. A presentation that just lists pros and cons of globalisation is unlikely to get a very high grade. What do you think? Are some examples of globalisation you have covered in your presentation, in you mind, right or wrong. Tell me why you think they are right or wrong?

    Select examples that are interesting, topical, relevant to you. Talk about a Julio who is a 14 year old boy working on coffee plantation, not only sales figures of Nestle and some fair trade companies. Give a story a face.

    So what? What is the significance of me knowing all this about coffee trade? So what if child labour is used in China to produce Nike shoes I am wearing? Can you make a connection? Your purchase may be supporting a company that is expoiting someone somewhere. Does this make you think twice about consuming these products ... how about buying fair trade coffee instead?

  4. Connections

    An excellent presentation shows how the question (and I do want your presentation titles to be questions!) could be approached from different perspectives and considered their implications in related area.

    The ethics of globalisation topic could, for example, be approached from perspectives of the individual farmer, the consumer, the economic development.

    An important part of the connections section is that you link your presentation to knowledge issues i.e. ask yourself: how can we know? is this knowledge reliable? In this case of coffee trade issue ... am I just believing fair trade propaganda, or is there really something to argument that big coffee multinationals are exploiting farmers? Should I instead believe the multinationals when they claim they are providing job opportunities and creating wealth by their investments?

    Be critical about the sources of information you use. Tell where you got the information and if in your mind this information is trustworthy.

    When you draw your conclusions try to justify your claims as well as you can. Try to make your arugment such that it mostly appeals to reason, i.e. it makes sense to believe what you are saying.

0 Thoughts to “Knowers Perspective Tok Essay Introduction

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *