Breaking Down the TOK, 2021

This blog has been written by our expert tutor, David C

Historical development(circa 1967):

Theory of Knowledge” (ToK) is now recognized as “the jewel in the IB crown”. In reality and at the time of its creation, IB Enthusiasts were probably the only ones who had any idea of what it might entail. But it sounded convincing since it aimed to ensure that a degree of reflective integration could take place across the subjects of the IB diploma. The emphasis lay in an understanding of the philosophical basis of each discipline and how the subject categories reflected ways in which humans think about knowledge

What is the Theory of Knowledge, you ask?

Are you ready…

This is your world. You share it with many others, some of whom think like you while many do not. Your life has been shaped by the circumstances of your home, your culture, and your education. And the events of your era are like no other. You have come to believe certain things about yourself, the way the world works, and the values that guide what you do and think. But when is the last time you questioned what you think and believe? How do you know what you think you do? Why and how did you come to believe what you do? Just how sure are you about what you believe? And why do you suppose other people think differently?

This is your Theory of Knowledge course and it is quite unlike any other study you have encountered. The experiences you have in this study and the skills you develop will make a lasting impression on your life. You will quite probably think differently when you complete this study. Welcome to a process that begins with your first ToK class. The study should be one that intrigues you and offers you a chance to reflect on how belief and knowledge come together not only for you but also for others. You will have the opportunity to examine knowledge claims about both the world and knowledge itself.

You will also consider knowledge questions which are about knowledge itself, rather than subject-specific material. For example, “How does language shape knowledge” or “How can we know if our senses are reliable?”. Your course will rely on you! So, try to bring an open and inquisitive mind that is ready to explore. You will examine the ideas and deeds of yourself and others and will reflect on how a person knows what that person thinks they do. Do you know what you don’t know? Can people ever agree on what is known? What personal knowledge belongs only to you, and what shared knowledge belongs to groups of people?

ToK is interdisciplinary by nature and has an open-ended, question-based structure. It is not content-heavy in terms of a series of fact-based curricula.

What ways of knowing are the most trustworthy? Do you think you can you trust your senses? Can you believe what you read or have heard? Can you reason it out? Do you know how to reason? Do you feel it? Can you trust your feelings? Do you remember it? And just how good is your memory? Did you imagine it? Do you have faith in something? Or does your intuition tell you, but you really don’t know how? Ready? Let’s get started.

Any TOKer is a student of life. And perhaps the most illuminating question a discerning IB Theory of Knowledge student can ask is:

I wonder….
• I wonder if that is true?
• I wonder how we know that?
• I wonder how I could prove that…
• I wonder whose idea that was?
• I wonder if there is any evidence that…
• I wonder if there are things we cannot know?

And the list of questions goes on powered by human curiosity, and hopefully, your curiosity.


“TOK teaches students to question. By questioning and analyzing everything you do, you create your body of knowledge. This helps define who you are. Your personal body of knowledge forms part of your human discovery.” ToK students become aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge. These include personal ideological biases –allowing for biases to be retained, revised, or rejected.

Studying the ToK takes you on a personal excursion where you learn to think analytically and appraise yourself as a perceptive and attentive being. ToK encourages the exploration of the means by which knowledge is determined and validated. The study accents the eight ways of knowing: Sense Perception, Reason, Language, Memory, Intuition, Faith, Imagination and Emotion. ToK helps you make the connections among various areas of
knowledge and the limitations of them. ToK will also show you the methods used in establishing knowledge in different fields of study and helps you trace the origins of knowledge and its discovery.

Here is a most useful ToK course summary borrowed (with some gentle editing) from:
IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Syllabus Washburn High School, 201 West 49th Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55419

Knowledge Questions

The beliefs that commonly pass for knowledge have changed and will continue to change throughout time and space. In fact, many formerly inarguable true beliefs are now considered fiction. Moreover, it is not uncommon that knowledge in one cultural region is considered myth and superstition in another. Although much knowledge is obtained through emotion, reason, language and perception, many believe in the existence of other sources of knowledge such as “intuition”, the “eternal truth” and the “spiritual experience”. “Intuition”, the “eternal truth”, and the “spiritual experience”. These are difficult to assess as a way of knowing, yet the influence these knowledge claims have in the lives of individuals and world cultures implores us to try. Whether discussing knowledge by emotion, reason, language, and perception, or knowledge by
“intuition”, “eternal truth” or the “spiritual experience”, there are many questions that arise in assessing the validity of knowledge claims.

As responsible knowers, we must exhibit integrity, open-mindedness, and intellectual clarity in examining and discussing what we know and how we know it. The unit on the issues or questions of knowledge will introduce us
to the nature of knowledge, the knower and the sources of their knowledge, the justification of knowledge claims, and questions that link the ways of knowing. Knowledge claims to other knowledge issues or questions of interest will form part of this discussion.

Ways of Knowing

Perception: The way we perceive the world depends greatly on our senses. An individual’s senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste drastically affect the way in which they experience the world and thus affect their
knowledge about the world. Much knowledge has been gained through our human biological senses, but is there any validity to knowledge claims said to have been derived from what has been called extra sensory perception?
Technology has and will continue to offer new ways to perceive and make contact with the world and its role will be an important link to the discussion of issues related to ways of knowing and knowledge claims. In this unit on perception, we will discuss the nature of perception and its limitations as well as questions that arise as a result of our conversations.

Language: As children, each of us learned a system of verbal and nonverbal symbols that we use to represent our experiences. This system of symbols is what we call language and much of what we know comes to us through language. A well-respected hypothesis postulated by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf suggests that the culturally constructed languages that we speak influence the thoughts that we have. Is it possible that people who speak different languages think differently? This opens up some interesting questions concerning the relationship between language and knowledge. In this unit on language, we will discuss the nature of language, the functions of language, the limitations of language, the relationship between language and culture, the relationship between language and knowledge and other questions that arise from our discussions.

Reason: Reason is one way that people string together ideas to gain knowledge. However regardless of which method of reason one uses (inductive, deductive, dialectic, analogical, or syllogistic, to name a few) the methods of reason begin with presumptions such as the principle of universal causation and the uniformity of nature. The principle of universal causation (if p then q) argues that every event has its cause or causes. If this principle is true, logic that assumes this principle is upheld. However, if it is true, what impact does its existence have on the principle of free will? The principle of the uniformity of nature is the belief that natural processes occur in a specific and consistent manner. Does this principle represent the way things are, or does belief in its existence merely keep us from seeing other possibilities?

In this unit on reason, we will discuss the nature of reason, the relationship between reason and knowledge, the role of faith in reason, the strengths and weaknesses of reason as a way of knowing, and questions that seemingly naturally arise from its study.

Emotion: Western culture asserts that knowledge is made possible by reason and emotion confuses reason. Recently, however, a new paradigm of thought is developing that asserts that emotions contain knowledge, and
they may be used to assist the reason. In this unit on emotion we will discuss the nature of emotion, the relationship between emotion and knowledge, intuition, and other questions that arise from our discussions.

Areas of Knowledge:

TOK distinguishes introduces eight areas of knowledge. They are mathematics, the natural sciences, the human sciences, the arts, history, ethics, religious knowledge systems, and indigenous knowledge systems. This is a knowledge framework and is a stratagem for exploring specific knowledge.

Natural Science: (from Latin: to know) is knowledge gained through a systematic process known as the scientific method. Natural science is a term used to refer to the use of the scientific method to study nature. Examples of the “successes” of the natural sciences are all around us from genome editing, cell phones, cloning, and stem cell research, to our recent scanning of the universe. These “successes” are thought to be the result of the effectiveness and reliability of the scientific method. But what are the assumptions of the scientific method, does it have its limits, and what limits if any should be placed on scientific inquiry based on knowledge claims from other areas of knowledge?

In this unit on the Natural sciences we will discuss the nature of the sciences, methods of gaining knowledge in the natural sciences, natural sciences and knowledge claims, ethical and value issues in past and present scientific inquiry and discovery, the issues the natural sciences face due to their increasing reliance on technology, the possible loss of scientific integrity as science becomes increasing valued less for its own sake, and the use or misuse of metaphor in the natural sciences to represent reality.

Human Sciences: The Human Sciences are the systematic and verifiable study of the human condition, activities, and story. Some have argued that the less positivistic approach of the social scientist produces results that reflect the biases of the researcher. Is it possible to conduct research in the social sciences that is free from personal and cultural bias? In this unit on the human sciences, we will discuss the nature of the human sciences, the methods of gaining knowledge in the social sciences and concerns about their reliability, the knowledge claims of social scientists and issues that complicate those knowledge claims, and value issues present in social science research.

History: (from Greek: Historia) History is said to be a narrative or construct of the past based on interpreted primary sources. How close can we come to an objective record of our past? How much history is propaganda? How much of our personal identity, national identity, and national policy is based on historically reliable narrative? What can the serious study of the past tell us about the present? In this unit on history, we will discuss the nature of history, the methods used by historians and consider the reliability of knowledge claims based on those methods. We will also consider value issues related to the past and present writing of historical narrative.

The Arts: What is art? What is the purpose of art? What is the relationship between art and insight? What is the relationship between art and knowledge? Does art break down human isolation and link us to our common humanity? Is art, as some have argued, a means of access to universal truths or ideas, or is it, as others argue, a means of making contact with the nature of reality? In this unit on art, we will discuss the nature of the arts, art as a method of gaining knowledge, the expression of knowledge claims through art, value issues in the arts, and knowledge that can be gained by looking at an art object from different perspectives.

Ethics: What is ethics, and what does it mean to act ethically? Is behaving ethically always following the law? Are “white” lies really harmless? Is being ethical always following your gut feeling? If you break the norms of society are you behaving unethically? Is morality subjective? Is there a higher purpose in life, if so, what is it? What is life worth living? Can too much knowledge really be dangerous? Does the authority determine what is right or wrong? In this unit on ethics, we will discuss the nature of ethics, ethical methods of gaining knowledge, how to use perspective to better understand ethical issues, making ethical knowledge claims, ethics and value judgments, and ethical concerns in the production and use of technology.

Mathematics: Mathematics is active in the foreground and background of every day and every night of our entire lives. It has been used for thousands of years as a way to organize and understand our world. It is a human activity that exists in some form in every culture. Why then do so few of us know what it is and even fewer of us know of its usefulness? In this unit on mathematics we will discuss the history of the development of mathematics (whose numbers are these anyway?) nature of mathematics, mathematics as a human endeavor, the strengths and weaknesses of mathematics in the making of knowledge claims, and how you, the knower, is or is not linked to mathematics.

Religious Knowledge: What is religious knowledge? This study involves studying religious communities and methods of sharing knowledge. Here we find personal and shared knowledge. We examine specific kinds of knowledge claims while exploring world religions. The topics for discussion are: methods of justifications, faith, and other ways of knowing and justifying. agnosticism and atheism. We examine religious perspectives and consider a global ethic.

Indigenous Knowledge: What is indigenous knowledge? Here we examine the meaning of indigenous”. Included: are IK and “western” science”: methods at scale, historical development: colonialism, globalization. accuracy and respect. Guidelines include major knowledge questions such as IK and TOK areas of knowledge: holistic knowledge and intersection, owning, and sharing knowledge. A study of differences and similarities is present.


About the Author: David C. 

David C. is a veteran tutor and examiner in IB history and TOK., and is one of our expert tutors that can help you smash the IB! David holds a Ph.D. (abd) in International Education and has over 25 years of experience teaching the IB. He can help you get the best marks in your TOK Essay. What are you waiting for? Sign up today! 

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