Theory of Knowledge: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

What is Theory of Knowledge (ToK) and how can it be embraced to develop deeper learning outcomes?

What is Theory of Knowledge?

Theory of knowledge (TOK) is an area of philosophical speculation that plays a crucial role in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP). It concentrates on the nature of knowledge and how genuine knowledge is achieved. It provides an opportunity for learners to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how people know what they claim to know.

According to Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, the Theory of knowledge is related to the conditions, nature, or/and first principles of genuine knowledge and also, according to some experts, with the reliability or truth-value, of knowledge attributions. Some authors have used the term formal epistemology interchangeably with the expression "theory of knowledge". Research reveals that the Theory of knowledge is one of the most controversial topics of philosophy, as there is a significant disagreement among the different philosophical traditions over correct formulation and selection of the problems to be analyzed. There is also disagreement over the subject of whether the theory of knowledge needs to control and precede or it must be controlled by psychology and metaphysics.

Digging deeper into the theory of knowledge

According to the Philosophy And Phenomenological Research, just as other problems in philosophy, the theory of knowledge received its oldest formulation and a wide range of solutions from within the Greeks, the most significant of whom are Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Democritus and Parmenides.

  1. Parmenides: Parmenides aimed to differentiate the unity of nature with its variety, contending in the Way of Truth upon the reality of its unity, which is the object of human knowledge, and upon the unreality of its variety, which is the object of opinion, not of knowledge attributions.
  2. Plato: Plato defines 4 stages of knowledge development:
  • Imagining;
  • Believe;
  • Thinking; and
  • Perfect Intelligence.

Plato speculated from the outset that knowledge is achievable, and that knowledge attributions must be (i) real and (ii) infallible. True belief knowledge needs to have both these traits, and any state of mind which cannot vindicate its declaration to both these traits is a false belief as it cannot be true belief knowledge.

  1. Socrates: According to Socrates' approach to knowledge, knowledge and virtue are the same things. For Socrates, knowledge is not more than a truth or a concept with a universal appeal how a particular concept prevails around the world, with a responsibility to bring or to do good.
  2. Democritus: As mentioned in Philosophy And Phenomenological Research, Democritus had a view that sensation and thought occur due to the images impinging on the body from outside, and that perception as much as thought depends upon images. Thought as well as perception is defined as changes in the body. Democritus' approach to knowledge realized that his perspective gives rise to an epistemological problem: our intuitive sense and experience upon our knowledge of the world, but the intuitive sense is not in direct contact with the nature of things, therefore leaving room for false belief or error.
  3. Aristotle: Just as Plato, Aristotle's approach to knowledge was that knowledge is of what is real and that this reality must be justified how it indicates that it must be true, it is inevitably true.

Theory of knowledge
Developing a theory of knowledge

What are the primary ways of acquiring knowledge?

According to the TOK, there are 4 major ways of knowing about the world;

Philosophy And Phenomenological Research claim that whatever we claim to know, we can trace it back to any of these four sources; either we heard it, or we saw it, or we reasoned it, or we read it, or we have a gut feeling that it is correct. Although these are valuable, none of these ways of ordinary knowledge is free from flaws. In reality, these are all can be both a knowledge source and an obstacle to knowledge. For instance, many scientific knowledge claims made by the Contemporary Philosophers, are based on perception, but we are deceived by our senses. Much of knowledge is conveyed to us 'second-hand' by other persons, but their language can be misleading. We claim ourselves as rational animals, but we frequently make mistakes in our reasoning and come to conclusions too quickly. Also, in pursuit of knowledge, we sometimes rely on intuitions and feeling to justify our claims to ordinary knowledge, but they are not foolproof sources to the truth.

Ways of knowing - TOK
Ways of knowing - TOK

What's in the Theory of Knowledge course?

In this course, students develop a deep understanding of the conditions of knowledge, history of philosophy and the influences that have shaped students' and others' opinions. Skills acquired in this course put an intuitive sense of cultural sensitivity that enables learners to be more effective leaders. Considering the conditions for knowledge initiates discussions that guide from one subject area to the next, providing students with the opportunities to create deep connections. In the Theory Of Knowledge course, students gain:

  • A passion for knowledge and an acknowledgement of human knowledge empowerment;
  • An awareness of how contemporary philosophers and societies create knowledge;
  • Acknowledgement for the significance of the transdisciplinary study;
  • Identification of the responsibility of having propositional knowledge and how to accomplish that responsibility at global and local levels;
  • Appreciation for the diversity between cultures in terms of values, practices and true beliefs;
  • An awareness of the nature of language and how to apply linguistic abilities to discuss ideas.

What is the structure of the Theory of Knowledge?

As a purposeful and thoughtful inquiry into different kinds of propositional knowledge and different ways of knowing, Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is made up of almost entirely knowledge questions.

According to the Contemporary Philosophers, the first of the knowledge questions is "How do we know?", and other knowledge questions are:

  • What is the real-world meaning of theory X?
  • What is the best way to judge the best model of Y?
  • What is known as evidence for Z?

According to the Contemporary Debates in Epistemology, by discussing these and other questions about knowledge, learners build a greater understanding of their personal and ideological assumptions as well as developing an understanding of false beliefs and appreciation of the richness of cultural perspectives and diversity.

What are the benefits of TOK for students?

The main purpose of Modern Philosophy or TOK is to inform students about the historical development of philosophy and interpretative character of human knowledge, also taking into account personal ideological biases – whether these biases are rejected, revised or retained. TOK gives teachers and their students the opportunity of:

  • considering the nature and role of human knowledge in their culture, in other cultures and the rest of the world;
  • critically reflecting on diverse areas of propositional knowledge and ways of knowing.

Also, TOK motivates students to:

  • Understand about themselves as thinkers, enabling them to become more familiar with the complex nature of propositional knowledge;
  • Identify the need to behave responsibly in an uncertain and increasingly interconnected world.

In the pursuit of knowledge, some of the Contemporary Philosophers like Matthias Steup, Hilary Kornblith and Hilary Putnam have made significant contributions in Contemporary Epistemology, Naturalized Epistemology, Traditional Epistemology, Feminist Epistemology, Formal Epistemology and analyses of knowledge. As mentioned in the Australasian Journal Of Philosophy, TOK also offers coherence for the students, by connecting academic subject areas and transcending them. Hence, TOK can demonstrate how a Contemporary Philosopher can use his genuine knowledge with much more credibility and awareness.

Why should you teach TOK?

The benefits of broadening your student's understanding of knowledge acquisition include:

  • To enable your students to be aware of the complexity of knowledge and its various forms, including scientific, social, moral, political and aesthetic knowledge.
  • To help them understand the difference between knowing and believing, and between truth and falsehood. To show that knowledge is not always reliable and objective.
  • To encourage critical thinking and self-reflection.
  • To develop a sense of responsibility towards others.
  • To foster respect for all people regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age, nationality etc.
  • To make students think critically about their own knowledge claims and those of others.

TOK helps students to appreciate the value of learning from different sources, such as science, history, literature, art, music, politics, economics, ethics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, geography, mathematics, languages, theology, philosophy, medicine, law, engineering, architecture, business, sports, technology and many more subjects.

Use the Universal Thinking Framework to developer knowledge
Use the Universal Thinking Framework to developer knowledge

How do I teach TOK?

Teaching TOK requires the teacher to be able to explain the philosophical issues involved in epistemological debates and to provide appropriate examples of each view. In addition, it requires the teacher to be willing to discuss controversial topics and to allow time for discussion.

A good way to introduce TOK is through a series of questions. These questions may be used as a guide to explore the topic further. They can then be adapted to suit individual classes and/or curricula. The following are just some of the questions which could be asked at this stage.

1. What does it mean to know something?

2. What is the difference between knowing and belief? Why do we believe things?

3. Is there any difference between true and false beliefs?

4. How do we distinguish between facts and opinions? Do we really know anything? If so, what is it like?

5. What is the relationship between knowledge and evidence?

6. What is the difference in meaning between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’?

7. Can we ever prove or disprove something? Is there any difference in meaning between “I don't know” and “I don't believe”?

8. Are there any differences between scientific, religious and other kinds of knowledge.

9. What is the role of experience in acquiring knowledge? Does everyone have equal access to knowledge?

10. Is there any difference among the sexes in terms of knowledge acquisition? How do we acquire knowledge? What is the nature of knowledge?