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TOK Essay Prescribed Titles – May 2010


Waves on the shore

Here are some (possible) guiding questions to help you deal with the TOK Essay titles.

I have compiled a list of questions which should help students analyze their chosen prescribed title question (Nov 2009, and May 2010 session). The presented questions are meant as a source of inspiration. Some of you may think that simply answering these questions is enough for passing the TOK essay. Trust me, it’s not enough. And don’t say that you didn’t know. The purpose of these questions is to get you thinking about the prescribed title. I’m not saying that the questions are directly relevant for your particular approach to your chosen title question. I have to be honest with you: For many of these questions I myself do not even know an answer and maybe some questions do not even have a single, clear answer. Some of the questions may not even be relevant for your approach to the prescribed title! If you already have an approach to your prescribed title, then do not let these questions distract you. You must read these questions critically and reflect on them.


1. To what extent is truth different in mathematics, the arts and ethics?

  • What are different types of truth?
  • How can Plato’s characteristics of truth be applied to these areas?
  • (How) can the different areas of knowledge (math, arts, ethics) be linked to more than one type of truth each? Is there an overlap?
  • Are there some similarities relating to truth?
  • Is the concept of truth even relevant for these areas of knowledge?
  • In math, is there a difference between a formula being “true” and a formula being “correct”?
  • (How) can art be true?
  • How do we know that we have reached truth in these three areas?

Note: The question asks “to what extent”. It does not ask if truth is defined differently in these areas of knowledge. It assumes that it is. Do not simply show that truth is defined differently, because this is implied by the question. You have to explain how/to what extent truth is different. A balanced approach also includes similarities, and not only differences.

Related Posts: Mathematics | Ethics | Truth


2. Examine the ways empirical evidence should be used to make progress in different areas of knowledge.

  • How should (or should not) experiments and observation be used in science, history, ethics, arts, maths, human sciences?
  • Is it always a good idea to use empirical evidence in these areas? How can this type of evidence be used inappropriately?
  • What does “making progress” mean for the different areas of knowledge? How can you make progress in arts, science, ethics, histotry etc.?
  • How do you know that you have made progress in the different areas?
  • What are several ways in which empirical evidence can be gathered, and are all of these ways equally useful for the different areas of knowledge?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using empirical evidence in the different areas?
  • Is evidence (empirical or not) always needed to make progress in the different areas?
  • Can it be that empirical evidence is given too much / too little importance in some areas of knowledge?
  • What are the consequences if empirical evidence is used not properly in the different areas of knowledge?
  • Can it be that some people demand empirical evidence in areas of knowledge where empirical evidence is not able to give an answer?
  • Can you find examples where empirical evidence can be used in arts and ethics?
  • What are the differences between rationalism and empiricism?
  • When should rationalism be used instead of empiricism in the different areas?
  • What is “evidence”? Does every empirical measurement count as evidence?
  • What strategy are you going to use for “examining” the ways? What does “examine” mean?

Note: The question does not ask if empirical evidence should be used in the different areas of knowledge. It asks for the *ways* on how it should be used. If you write the essay like the following example, then you have misunderstood the question: “In science empirical evidence is very important. In ethics it is less important. In arts it is also less important.” Don’t simply categorize the areas of knowledge. Rather examine how empirical evidence should/should not be used in arts. How it should/should not be used in science etc. The emphasis should be on the “should be used”, according to the prescribed title.

Related Posts: [#37] What is Logical Positivism? | Sense Perception


3. Discuss the strengths and limitations of quantitative and qualitative data in supporting knowledge claims in the human sciences and at least one other area of knowledge.

  • Is quantitative data automatically more objective than qualitative data?
  • Why is it that many people trust quantitative data more than qualitative data?
  • For which knowledge claims is quantitative data better? For which knowledge claims is qualitative data better? What is “better”?
  • Is it really an either-or situation? Can it not be that qualitative and quantitative data are both necessary (to varying degrees) to support a knowledge claim? Which examples are you going to use?
  • How do we asses what a strength or a limitation is?
  • What are some consequences if qualitative data is used instead of quantitative data (and vice versa)?
  • What are some possible knowledge claims in human sciences?
  • Are all human sciences the same? Is it not possible to treat a particular human science (such as psychology) both in a very natural scientific way, “hard” way (neurophysiology, etc.) and in a “soft” way (psychoanalysis, counseling, etc.)? How do qualitative and quantitative data relate to these different views of the same area of knowledge?

Note: In order to get a balanced approach, one possibility could be to choose another area of knowledge which places a different emphasis on qualitative and quantitative data than the aspect of human sciences that you are going to cover.


4. How can the different ways of knowing help us to distinguish between something that is true and something that is believed to be true?

  • How can you be certain that something “is true”?
  • If something “is believed to be true”, is it then really not true?
  • What ways of knowing are you going to address?
  • Are these WOKs equally useful for distinguishing “between something that is true and something that is believed to be true” in all areas of knowledge (or are some WOKs better suitable for some areas than for others)?
  • What does the word “how” refer to?
  • Are there different types or categories of truth?

Note: The question explicitly asks you to address different ways of knowing. You should also include different areas of knowledge. One possible approach: How can sense perception, logics, emotion, language be used to distinguish between something that is true and something that is believed to be true in the sciences (you find the examples)? How can these ways of knowing be used to distinguish in Math, in Arts, in History, in Ethics, etc. etc. As counter arguments, you may want to include examples how they can not be used to make this distinction, but do not lose the focus of the question.

Related Posts: Truth


5. “What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions” (Michael Shermer, www.edge.org). Critically evaluate this way of distinguishing the sciences from other areas of knowledge?

  • How does Popper’s principle of falsification relate to the question?
  • Are there other areas of knowledge that also provide provisional conclusions?
  • Are really *all* conclusions of science provisional in real life, or is the provisional nature an ideal that scientists strive to reach?
  • What happens if a conclusion is final and not provisional? Is it then still scientific?
  • Can Popper’s principle of falsification (which is originally intended for the natural sciences) be also applied to other areas of knowledge?
  • Is every activity in which a provisional conclusion is reached, automatically scientific?
  • Does the question imply that conclusions reached in history, the human sciences, ethics, etc. are not provisional (i.e. are final conclusions)? Is this really the case? Do historians, for example, really reach final conclusions, which are not modified or replaced? Or could it be that the expression “provisional nature of all conclusions” has a different meaning in the sciences, history, arts, math, ethics, etc. (a language issue)?
  • Can you find examples where math delivers both provisional and non-provisional conclusions?

Note: Before you start, be sure that you understand what “provisional nature of all conclusions” means. In my view, a solid understanding of Karl Popper’s principle of falsification helps a lot in answering this question. Do not forget to include other areas of knowledge as well. One possibility could be to find provisional conclusions in history, the human sciences, etc. and contrast these provisional conclusions with those in science.

Related Posts: [#4] What is Falsification?


6. All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism. On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?

  • Is every criticism a rational criticism? What makes a criticism rational? What is rational?
  • What is critical rationalism (careful, the words are turned around)?
  • Who is the founder of critical rationalism?
  • Can you think of some knowledge claims too important/valuable/sensitive that they should not be rationally criticized? In other words, should it be a taboo in criticizing certain knowledge claims?
  • What criteria do you establish for deciding which knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism, and which ones not?
  • Should there be limits to the freedom of speech (freedom of expressing knowledge claims)?
  • Can you find examples where rational criticism of certain knowledge claim resulted in negative consequences for the person criticizing the claim?
  • What claims count as knowledge claims? Is every claim a automatically a knowledge claim? What characteristics make a claim a knowledge claim?
  • Is it a good idea to find knowledge claim examples from the different areas of knowledge and assess them if they should be open to rational criticism?
  • Should (certain) knowledge claims in Ethics be open to rational criticism? E.g.: “I know that stealing is wrong.” should this statement be open to rational criticism, or are there certain statements that should not be questioned.
  • Can you find examples of people who criticized knowledge claims and were therefore jailed? Was their criticism justified? Was the criticism rational?

Note: Give a balanced answer. The question asks you to answer “to what extent” you agree. It does not ask you if you generally agree or disagree. Maybe you could start out brainstorming some knowledge claims that are so important to you (or the society you live in), that they should not be open to rational criticism because this rational criticism would have negative side effects.


7. “We see and understand things not as they are but as we are.” Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.

  • What two ways of knowing are you going to address in this essay?
  • Does the word “see” only refer to sense perception? Are the “things” only physical objects or can they also be abstract concepts such as ideas, attitudes, theories, opinions, etc.?
  • Is this really an either-or question between the “thing” and us? How could both factors contribute to our understanding (the thing in itself and our own nature)?
  • What does “understand” mean? How do you know when you have understood something?
  • Which areas of knowledge are you going to address and what are the “things” in these areas? How do these areas of knowledge relate to the ways of knowing?
  • How can different people understand the same “thing” differently? What aspect in the nature of the person is responsible for the different view of the “thing”?
  • Can you find examples (from the different areas of knowledge) where the “thing” contributes more and examples where “we” contribute more in understanding the “thing”?

Note: This is an old philosophical debate. Is the world as we perceive it and understand it (not only sense perception!) a product of our mind or is there a real reality out there? Or is it a combination of both? Give a balanced explanation: is the nature of the “thing” really irrelevant for understanding something? The question asks you to discuss, it is not a yes/no or either/or question. This means that you have to show both sides of the debate (which sides?).


8. “People need to believe that order can be glimpsed in the chaos of events” (adapted from John Gray, Heresies, 2004). In what ways and to what extent would you say this claim is relevant in at least two areas of knowledge?

  • What is an event?
  • Does the term “event” only relate to historical events?
  • What role does the interpretation of events (not only historical) play?
  • Can the result of a scientific experiment also be considered an “event”? What are the “events” in math? Do “events” also exist in math?
  • How does the concept of reductionism relate to the title?
  • What does the word “need” mean? Is this context, is the title normative or descriptive? What do the terms “normative” and “descriptive” mean?
  • What makes an event chaotic? I do not only mean chaos theory.
  • Is an event chaotic because we humans consider it chaotic, or is it a characteristic of the event? Or both?
  • Can the “order” that the question talks about also be considered a form of simplification? If yes, how?

Note: I think it is important to clarify what the words “order” and “chaos” mean for the areas of knowledge in question. Maybe you can find examples from the different areas of knowledge where people tried to impose order on the things that they observed.


9. Discuss the claim that some areas of knowledge are discovered and others are invented.

  • What are the differences between discovering and inventing? Are the two words used interchangeably sometimes (is it a language issue)?
  • Is it possible that different areas of knowledge contain both elements, discovery and invention?
  • Which areas of knowledge are you addressing? Can you find examples?
  • If you make a scientific discovery and a historical discovery, is the word “discover” used the same way?
  • What are some common characteristics (and differences) of discovering and inventing?

Note: You are to “discuss” the claim. This means that you should weigh the evidence. If you only try to “prove” that certain areas of knowledge are invented and others are discovered, then you do not discuss the claim (e.g. “Math is invented, science is discovered”). Also try to establish some criteria to distinguish a discovery from an invention. Is there an overlap?


10. What similarities and differences are there between historical and scientific explanations?

  • What is an “explanation” in the first place?
  • What is the importance of cause and effect in the history and science?
  • What role does the interpretation of empirical evidence play in history and science?
  • Does (to what extent does) the interpretation of evidence count as an explanation?
  • Can (to what extent can) Karl Popper’s principle of falsification (of scientific theories) be applied to history as well?
  • Is the word “explanation” used differently (or similarly) in science and history?
  • How is a scientific explanation different/similar to a historical explanation?
  • On what basis are you going to compare history and science?

Note: The essay specifically asks you to address history and science. This does not mean that you should completely ignore other areas of knowledge. Are there some things that history and science have in common and makes them different from other areas of knowledge? As always, do not forget to explain the terms of the prescribed title: What is an explanation? Do not give me a dictionary definition.

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8 Responses to TOK Essay Prescribed Titles – May 2010

  1. Kate

    Very helpful!
    A very helpful tool to understand what to write as an answer to an essay question.

    Loved reading this..


  2. Desiree'

    This is a life saver!! Thank you so very much!


  3. gulsen

    Thank you for this helpful information. I am a student-teacher, I take TOK course and I need help. This gonna be useful for me…


  4. Riley

    SO GLAD you posted this up, HUGE helper and great approach!


  5. Christopher

    Thank you very much. This gave me great insight about what the prescribed title was really asking for.


  6. Raghav

    really helpful!! thanks a lot!!!!


  7. Arielle

    thank youuuuuuuuuuuuuu!


  8. Sandra

    SO helpful. Thanks alot


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