How do we know?

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the Greek philosopher describes prisoners who have lived their lives enchained within a dark cave. People pass behind them with lights, carrying objects and these create shadows on the wall of the cave. To the prisoners, these shadows are their reality. Plato uses this allegory to show us the limits of our knowledge. It is a story we often refer to in our TOK lessons and we will come back to it at the end of this article.

27 June 2023

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What is TOK?

TOK stands for Theory of Knowledge and is part of the core of the IB Diploma, along with CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) and the Extended Essay. In Philosophy, TOK is known as epistemology. It revolves around a question: How do we know?

  • How do we know that the earth travels around the sun, and not the other way around? 
  • How do we know that (in a right-angled triangle) the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides? 
  • How do we know that Colonel Mustard did it in the Library with the Revolver?

To help answer these questions, students begin the course learning about the role of observation, sense perception, induction, language, and logical deduction in the construction of knowledge. They also learn the limitations of each of these ways of knowing. But this is just the beginning – as we will see.

The Map is not the Territory

A map is not the same as the territory that it represents. This is obvious as soon as we begin to think about it. Take a look at Brazil on a world map. In real-life Brazil is not smaller than your hand; nor is it colored yellow; and I do not imagine, if you were an eagle, soaring majestically over the Pantanal, that you would be able to look down and see the word BRAZIL written across the country in bold upper-case letters.

According to Alfred Korzybski, all of our knowledge is like this. We use models and maps to construct and represent what we know. As learners, we make mental maps inside our heads. But these representations are not the same thing as the world itself. They are a simplification and a distortion of external reality but, at the same time, they are useful to us in understanding the world and acting in it. They are also the basis of what we learn in different school subjects.

Areas of Knowledge

There are many ways of grouping subjects together. If we walk into a bookshop or a library we will find certain types of books living happily together (for the most part) next to each other. History, politics and economics will be found together in one aisle; biology, physics and chemistry will be found in another. Or imagine you are studying biochemistry in a large university campus and you want to meet your friend for lunch in the Arts faculty. You would probably need to set out early as the distance is likely to be large.

Within IB TOK, subjects are divided into five distinct Areas of Knowledge

  • Natural Sciences 
  • Human Sciences 
  • History 
  • Mathematics 
  • Arts

Biology, Chemistry and Physics are included in Natural Sciences; Economics and Geography are considered Human Sciences. Why isn’t History included as a Human Science? Is History a Science? The answers to these questions depend on who you ask, and also on what we mean by Science. 

For each of these areas, we look at the scope, purpose and methodology of the different areas. What is included in this area and what is not included? How do we reach knowledge in this subject? 

My favorite series of lessons in this part of the course is when we look at the question What is Art? Students are shown a series of images – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Lionel Messi doing what Lionel Messi does, a Pythagorean triangle, etc. Is this Art? Why? Why not? 

Everyone agrees that the Sunflowers are art. But when I explained recently that to me the Pythagorean triangle is beautiful in its simplicity, proportion and relations, one student replied: ‘No Alistair: we don’t see beauty; we see pain!’ It seems it really is in the eye of the beholder. It is rumored that in the land of my Scottish ancestors, there are even people who appreciate the sound of the bagpipes.

Assessment: Exhibition and Essay

There are no exams in TOK. Instead, students submit two assignments: the exhibition and the essay.

For the exhibition, students choose from a wide variety of knowledge questions:

  • Are some types of knowledge more useful than others?
  • How can we distinguish between knowledge, belief and opinion?
  • Does some knowledge belong only to particular communities of knowers?

After choosing a question, the student then has to select three objects to investigate the question. These could be historical objects, personal objects, published texts – the choice is endless. In response to the third sample question above, a student chose an example of her own printed piano music, alongside the Gutenberg Bible and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. 

The end result is a presentation in which the student takes each object in turn and relates it to the chosen knowledge question.

For the essay (1600 words), students are given each year a choice between six questions. Here are three from 2022:

  • Is replicability necessary in the production of knowledge? Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  • Are visual representations always helpful in the communication of knowledge? Discuss with reference to the human sciences and mathematics.
  • 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.

This is difficult. The titles would be challenging for post-graduates, let alone students who are still in High School. It is a source of recurrent pride and admiration that our students are able to approach this challenge and succeed each year with intelligence and perseverance. 

Leaving Plato’s Cave

Plato’s teacher, Socrates, is famously quoted as saying: The only thing I know, is that I know nothing. There is so much that we do not know and we should have the humility to accept the limits of our attempts to understand the world and each other. In the words of Saint Paul: We see through a glass, darkly. (1 Corinthians 13:12 King James Version) Though we may not be able to escape entirely from the dimness of our metaphorical caves, through continued thought and reflection, we may be able to take some small steps towards the light.

Reference: Accessed on April 28, 2023.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Tommaso Agostino Ricchini editore, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Original by Johannes Gutenberg

(printer), Scan by Jossi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.