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Contents & Course Narrative

Theory of Knowledge, 3rd edition

Click on the chapter headings below to learn how it fits into the course narrative, or read through the course narrative from the start.


1.   Introduction
2.   Memory
3.   Natural sciences
4.   Arts
5.   Imagination
6.   Mathematics
7.   Reason
8.   Emotions
9.   Religion
10. Intuition
11. Ethics
12. Human Sciences
13. History
14. Sense perception
15. Paradigms and culture
16. Indigenous knowledge systems
17. Language
18. Faith
19. Assessment

Course Narrative


What are we trying to do?  Why is knowledge problematic?  How does this lead to the private/public distinction?  How can we compare areas of knowledge and ways of knowing?

If TOK is about what we believe we know and a search for certainty, then memory is a clear source of our beliefs; but we can see that this private source can run into problems, for many reasons.

One solution here is to invert the private nature of the way of knowing and to make it public and testable; this leads to a solution for some of these issues, and to natural sciences as the current triumphant model for knowledge, with its great successes and basis in public observation and experiment.

But despite scientific successes something is missing - as students will tell us, science isn't everything: there is religion, morality, and aesthetics etc. and so we can consider the arts as an area not amenable to scientific method - perhaps a more  'human endeavour' -  but at the cost of loss of objectivity and 'certainty'.

So why do we have different opinions about art? Are there 'truths' there to be found? What is artistic (c.f. scientific) truth? And how do we reach these truths via imagination? Is imagination, that is, knowledge conjectured about the unknown, on the basis of the known, a strong way of knowing?

We can touch on the private way it crosses the skeptical gap, and note that despite its strengths it does not reach certainty; so back to our search for certainty... if imagination cannot help us be certain, where can we find certainty? How about 1+1=2 and mathematics as the most certain discipline? We can discuss mathematics as an axiomatic deductive system, and see how it can be both compelling and maybe even beautiful. Of course contrast mathematical 'truth' with the other types already seen, and then ask if we can broaden the mathematical method to embrace other areas?

This then leads into reason as the general system of logical inference. We will deal with inductive logic, deductive logic, hidden assumptions, fallacies, cognitive biases, lateral thinking, etc. Of course 'reasoning' leads us to consider its own limitations, and we can immediately see that as a model for human behaviour, rationalism is not entirely adequate.

Hence emotions - what are they? Are they really as opposed to reason? What is their basis?

And then to religion, which we can treat as a case study in reason and emotion – these may not be enough, but the interplay between them and their strengths and weaknesses should become apparent.

Of course, our instincts with regard to ethics are strong – we have powerful intuitions, which we can explore and contrast with emotion and reason.  But intuitions are based on certain aspects of our human conditions, which may be amendable to science. So is a scientific approach possible with humans? And don’t normative and positive issues arise?

We follow up with ethics as a further case study in the roles of reason and emotion, and a natural step from religion, including strengths and weaknesses of various ethical systems and case studies as appropriate.

So we consider the human sciences. Aren't we all unique and unpredictable? What are the problems? Does knowledge about humans raise its own special problems?

Issues here lead to another way of understanding human behaviour – via history - in fact, is it a social science? Why does it have a different place in the TOK diagram? What are the problems of history?

We stress the issue of selection and interpretation and use this as motivation to introduce empirical knowledge – i.e. sense perception - as an area worthy of detailed scrutiny.

We can consider the (perhaps artificially) distinct issues of both practical and philosophical problems, and the provisional and interpretative nature of sensory knowledge can leads us straight to paradigms and culture, with culture as the paradigm par excellence. This will review so many areas and also be very closely related to the students' own experience, and there is room to explore different indigenous cultures.

The study of indigenous knowledge systems offers a very wide range of possibilities for students (and their teachers) and here we look at just a small selection.

Cultures which will have many components, and in particular, language as a possible influence of what we know and how we know it. There are some 'obvious' and important points here - language and values, misleading language, language and thought - and also some very difficult ones - language and meaning, language and experience.

To conclude we look at where have we come, and more importantly, where are we going now?  We see that 100% certainty is impossible, so this means we need to have, one way or another, faith (not just religious).  So what are the issues there?  Are there several types of faith?  How are they related to intuition?  Are emotions innate or culturally related and what does either view mean for knowledge?

Finally, we offer some advice on Assessment.

Nick Alchin and Carolyn Henly
November 2013