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Theory Based TOK Syllabus

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I would like to share with you a TOK syllabus of a somewhat different kind. I’ve made a list of epistemological topics that fit to the different Ways of Knowing and Areas of Knowledge covered in the course. In my view, TOK should not be taught too theoretically. It is a critical thinking course, and by merely covering philosophical/epistemological topics you do not promote critical thinking. Nevertheless, I consider a theoretical basis helpful and useful for a variety of reasons.

  • As a basis for discussion: The topics can be woven in into the course to provide a more solid foundation for classroom discussion.
  • For the TOK Essay and presentation: Students can include theoretical components into the TOK essay to support their arguments. There is the danger, however, that some students merely summarize these concepts without reflection and this must be avoided.
  • A help for (new) teachers: The official TOK guide is composed mostly of questions. I personally have found it difficult to plan a course based on these questions alone. For example, what specific topics could be taught that answer the question in the IB TOK Guide “Is there a distinction between arts and applied arts (crafts)?” Here it is possible to contrast the different attempted definitions of art (Idealist vs. Significant Form Theory). This would give the lessons a somewhat more solid theoretical foundation.
  • To counter criticism: I have read the criticism that TOK does not possess sufficient theoretical foundation and that students don’t learn enough theory (this is not the main objective of TOK, however). I’ve included the names of relevant people to emphasize that the taught concepts do have an epistemological basis.


General TOK Material:

  • Definition of knowledge (Plato): One definition of knowledge is justified true belief. (Link to Episode #14)
  • Declarative vs. procedural knowledge: Declarative knowledge is the knowledge of facts (“knowing that”), procedural knowledge is the knowledge of performing certain actions (“knowing how to do something”). (Link to Episode #16)
  • Gettier Problem (Edmund Gettier): This is a counter-argument to Plato’s definition of knowledge. The Gettier Problem states that justified true belief is not necessarily knowledge. A belief can be justified and true by accident or pure chance alone, and thus can not/should not count as knowledge.
  • Different types/definitions of truth: Absolute, relative, pragmatic, correspondence, coherence. (Link to Episode #19)
  • Characteristics of truth (Plato): Truth is independent, eternal, public.
  • Methods to justify a claim (and associated problems, of course):
  • Knowledge systems vs. belief systems (Robert P. Abelson): Link to reference.
  • Rationalism (Rene Descartes): This is a philosophical view in which reason is source for knowledge.
  • Empiricism (David Hume, John Locke): In this view, knowledge is derived from our senses and from experience.
  • Aristotle’s 4 Causes: (Aristotle)


AOK: Science

  • Scientific method (Francis Bacon et al.): Hypothesis – Experimentation – Observation – Acceptance or refutation of the hypothesis
  • Deductive vs. inductive reasoning in science:
  • Paradigms and paradigm shifts (Thomas Kuhn):
  • Ockham’s Razor (William of Ockham): When there are several competing theories (i.e. explanations) for an observation, then the simpler theory, the one with fewer assumptions, is to be preferred and often correct. (Link to Episode #6) (Link to Episode #28)
  • Logical Positivism (Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Hans Hahn, Otto Neurath): This is an outdated view on the philosophy of science, but many people still use positivist approaches in their every day life, without being aware of its limitations. They assume that once a statement has been proven correct (even by a single proof alone), then the statement is correct. Up to the middle 20th century, logical positivism was the prominent view on philosophy of science. Logical positivists tried to classify statements into true, false or meaningless. This is in contrast to Popper’s falsificationism, which states that scientific theories can not be proven correct with certainty. The modern view of theories is probabilistic in nature. Logical positivists rejected statements of metaphysics, ethics etc. as meaningless because they can not be empirically verified.

Karl Popper:

  • Principle of falsification (Karl Popper): Theories can not be proven absolutely correct, they can only be falsified. (Link to Episode #4)
  • Problem of induction (Karl Popper, Sextus Empiricus): The question if truth can be reached by inductive reasoning (i.e. if it is possible to generalize individual observations to reach truth). Popper solved the Problem of Induction by stating that science does not rely on induction but rather on deduction.
  • Demarcation Problem (Karl Popper): The problem of what constitutes science and what not. Drawing of lines between science and pseudo-science. Solution: scientific theories are falsifiable (can be proven wrong).


AOK: Mathematics:

  • MU puzzle (Douglas Hofstadter): as a basis to explain formal systems. A formal system consists of a set of symbols, a grammar, a set of axioms and inference rules. (Link to Episode #10)
  • Peano Axioms:
  • Concpept of a mathematical proof: Differences to empirical proofs of the sciences?


AOK: Arts

  • Art communicates emotions (Leo Tolstoy): Art communicates emotions/feelings from person to person Link to Essay “What Is Art?”
  • Significant Form Theory (Clive Bell): Genuine art produces an aesthetic emotion in the consumer/viewer of the art
  • Idealist Theory (R. G. Collingwood): The actual work of art is only present in the artist’s mind. This distinguishes arts from crafts.
  • Institutional Theory (George Dickie): Something is art, if an authority declares it as art.


AOK: Human Sciences

  • Cassandra Paradox, Hawthorne effect (Henry A. Landsberger): People that know that they are being observed will/may change their behavior. Observation changes the thing being measured (Link to Episode #3)
  • Methods of gaining data: Statistical analysis and experimentation: The problem with experimentation is that a laboratory environment does not always represent nature and may cause the behavior of the human to change. Experimentation requires a rigorous control of variables, and this may distorts the result. Statistical analysis allows for the observation in a natural environment. Here the problem is, that not everything is easily quantifiable and that there may be bias from the side of the observer.


AOK: History

  • Role of facts and interpretation:
  • Historical Realism:
  • Historical Anti-representationalism:
  • Linear Theories:
  • Cyclical Theories:


AOK: Ethics

  • Characteristics of an ethical dilemma: Regardless of the choice, an ethical or moral rule will be broken. (Link to Episode #2)
  • Categorical Imperative (Immanuel Kant): An unconditional ethical rule; “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Ethical Principles:

  • Deontology (Immanuel Kant): Rule-based ethics. Acts are inherently good or bad, irrespective of their consequences. The consequences of an action are not always known, therefore they can not be used as a basis for judging the action.
  • Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill), consequentialist ethics: The consequences determine the goodness or badness of an action. The action that does the greatest good to the greatest number of people is the action to be preferred.
  • Hedonism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill): Pleasure is the ultimate goal and should drive one’s actions.
  • Altruism: People should help others at the expense of one’s own interests.
  • Ethical egoism:
  • Amoralism: The denial of the existence of morality in the first place; They may/may not oppose moral codes, they consider them non-existant.
  • Immoralism: They acknowledge the existence of a moral code, but do oppose it.


WOK: Logics/Reasoning

Formal logics:

  • Formal logics: Deriving conclusions (C) from premises (P): “P1: All men are mortal P2: Socrates is a man C: Socrates is mortal”
  • Inference (formal logics): The process of deductively deriving to a conclusion from premises.
  • Deductive reasoning, deductive logics: This is deriving a conclusion from a set of premises.
  • Inductive reasoning, inductive logics: This is the establishment of a generalized law from specific examples. Not to be confused with mathematical induction (proofs by induction).

Informal logics:

  • Informal logics: The study of language arguments.
  • Logical fallacies (informal logics): There are many of them. Possible examples include: Post Hoc Fallacy, Ad Hominem Fallacy, Appeal to Authority, Red Herring Fallacy, Slippery Slope Fallacy, etc.
  • Causation and correlation: These are commonly confused concepts. Causation is a specific case of correlation. If there is a cause-effect relationship between two variables, then they also correlate (but not the other way around).


WOK: Language

  • 4-ears model (4 sides model) of communication (Friedemann Schulz von Thun): When communicating, 4 different types of messages are passed. This can be a cause for misunderstandings (Link to Episode #12)
  • Connotation and denotation of words: Words may have a different connotation in different cultures. This may lead to misunderstnadings.
  • Euphimisms: They can be used in manipulative language.


WOK: Sense Perception

  • Noumenon vs. phenomenon (Immanuel Kant): Kant made a distinction between the objects as they really are (“the thing in itself” independent of the senses, noumenon) and the perception of the object by the senses (phenomenon).
  • Signal processing of the retina and brain: Visual sense perception also includes signal processing by retina and brain. Edge enhancement (retina) creates sharper corners. Contralateral processing allows the brain to estimate distances and size.


WOK: Emotion/Intuition

Work in progress!

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An amazing thing, the human brain. Capable of understanding incredibly complex and intricate concepts. Yet at times unable to recognize the obvious and simple.

- Jay Abraham -
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