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Image shows a library with statues on the left hand side that are reminiscent of philosophers and TOK

The TOK Essay can be a daunting task, and many of us struggle to even begin it in fear of doing something wrong. Not only are you expected to learn the philosophy of all the areas of knowledge, but now you have to write an essay about it too!? As difficult as this may seem, what most of us need is just a nudge in the right direction, and this is exactly what the following guide will provide. If you’re struggling to begin your essay, don’t know where to start or which title to pick, we’re here to help! Read on for a simple breakdown of the 6 TOK titles and how to tackle them!

1. Can there be knowledge that is independent of culture? Discuss with reference to mathematics and one other area of knowledge.

The first title is very intriguing for those who are interested in the social sciences! The question posed expects you to discuss whether knowledge and culture are always connected, and if knowledge can exist without culture in the first place. You’re asked to consider mathematics, and another AoK of your choice. Before we consider which AoK’s are suitable however, we must establish what it means for knowledge to be independent of culture.

Culture is a very abstract concept, and it can refer to anything ranging from a regional food dish such as Spanish Paella to the entire history, language and moral values of a society. This may seem like a lot to tackle, but a simpler way to look at it is to consider whether knowledge is always defined by culture, or if there are exceptions. 

In some cases, culture certainly determines the knowledge we produce. Consider the AoK History, for instance, where the history of a country is closely connected to aspects of culture such as language and morality. Historians use language to write history and their morals (which are defined by culture) to interpret the past, such as who was right or wrong. Both language and morality are aspects of culture, and therefore we can argue that historical knowledge may not be independent of culture!

How about Mathematics, then? We must also consider if knowledge can be independent of culture. In this case, mathematics is largely independent from culture as it is mostly an objective AoK. Knowledge is factual, and facts are absolute. Mathematics has one, universal language spoken by all mathematicians, and 2 + 2 = 4 in any part of the world. Thus, we can argue that mathematical knowledge is indeed independent of culture. 

Lastly, don’t forget to support your arguments with real life examples (RLEs). For history, one option would be to look at how bias affects historical writing. Some historians may have biases, which have arisen from their morals and culture, and are reflected in their historical writing. For mathematics, consider the absence of bias and how formulae such as Pythagoras’ Theorem remain universal, and no amount of cultural influence can ever change something which is a fact.

2. To what extent do you agree with the claim that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts”. (Maya Angelou) Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

While prompt 1 gives you one prescribed AoK, this one offers you more choice. Hurray! Or? While this question allows you to select both AoKs, too much choice is often more detrimental than beneficial in Theory of Knowledge. Here, you’re asked to consider the difference between truth and fact. At first glance you may be thinking that they’re the same thing and while this is not the case, they are immensely similar. Let’s see how you can approach this!

When considering the meaning of truth and fact, it is always useful to put them into some sort of context. For instance, in the natural sciences we can argue that there isn’t much of a difference between what is true, and what is fact. This is because when a scientific theory such as the theory of evolution is proven, it becomes widely accepted as true and factual. Thus, the definition of truth and fact are virtually inseparable in the sciences. 

Another AoK to explore could be history. Here, historians never truly know the ‘truth’ of what happened in the past, and they struggle immensely to recover facts from all sources so that they may piece together accurate interpretations. Therefore, they collect facts in an attempt to reach ever closer to the ultimate truth of what happened in the past, but arguably never achieve this fully. This leads to varying interpretations in history, as historians gather the same facts but may reach different truths from them. In this view, we can argue that facts are the building blocks of truth, rather than truth itself. 

3. Is there solid justification for regarding knowledge in the natural sciences more highly than another area of knowledge? Discuss with reference to the natural sciences and one other area of knowledge.

It’s time for more science! This is probably the most straightforward TOK title this time around, and that’s good news! Not everything has to be complex, even in TOK. Here, you’re being asked to discuss if there is any good reason to regard scientific knowledge ‘more highly’ than other AoKs. In other words, is scientific knowledge ‘better’ than knowledge in other AoKs, and if so, why and how? Let’s dig in!

To make things easier, let’s consider what other AoKs would be suitable choices for this title. In this case, a social science such as history or art would be very suitable. If we consider the arts, knowledge can be defined as the creations of artists such as paintings or music, and the interpretations people have of them. In this view, we can argue that art knowledge is quite subjective as the same song may make one person feel happy and another sad. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it also makes the arts unique. 

Nevertheless, the subjectivity of the arts could also be one reason that scientific knowledge may be regarded more highly, as it is objective and factual. For instance, it is an objective fact that cells are the smallest unit of life, but it is not factual to say that a painting is ‘beautiful’, as beauty is subjective. Then again, maybe facts aren’t everything, and maybe scientific knowledge isn’t better, but simply different from art knowledge. Consider these perspectives and ultimately decide if there is enough justification for the claim.

4. How do historians and human scientists give knowledge meaning through the telling of stories? Discuss with reference to history and the human sciences.

Storytelling is a powerful tool, so much so that experts in the social sciences use it to communicate their research. If you’ve chosen this title, you should begin by considering how knowledge is defined in history and the human sciences, such as psychology. 

From the lens of history, you may decide that historical knowledge is a collection of interpretations of the past. Moreover, these are the interpretations of historians which record and teach them, orally or in writing. These interpretations give historical events meaning by communicating their significance. A potential RLE would be to consider a historical event such as World War 2, and then analyze how historical interpretations teach us to appreciate its significance and not repeat the past.

If we consider the social sciences such as psychology, things can be a bit more complicated and ambiguous. Do psychologists tell stories? Maybe not in the conventional sense, but are research papers on mental health disorders not a type of story, one which teaches us about the disorder and the experiences people have of it? Exactly! The key here is to consider how knowledge is communicated in history and social science. Thus, your essay should focus on analyzing and discussing the methodology that historians and human scientists use to storytell.

5. How can we distinguish between good and bad interpretations? Discuss with reference to the arts and one other area of knowledge.

This question is my personal favorite! If you’re a fan of the arts, this is the question for you. What is an interpretation, and what makes it good or bad? In title 4 we considered how historical interpretations tell us about the past, and interpretations in the art are similar. While historians can interpret the past, art critics can judge the quality of an artistic piece. But how can we tell which interpretations are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’?

When considering this title, make sure to focus on the different types of interpretations we can have within art. Not all interpretations come from professional art critics, as art is free to view by all, and the everyday person can have their own, unique opinion on a piece of art. A good starting point to explore would be whether one art critic has a better interpretation of a piece of art than the everyday person. Perhaps the critic has professional training, and is more qualified to judge the techniques Da Vinci used to craft the Mona Lisa than a casual art enthusiast. However, art is not only about technique but also about emotion, and the everyday person may be better able to appreciate the subjective beauty of an art piece. Thus, in the arts it may be difficult to tell the difference between good and bad interpretations, as there is no concrete criteria for determining this.

Through the lens of another AoK, we can see a completely different perspective in the natural sciences. Here, the opinions of experts can be said to always be better than those of the general public. A good RLE could be climate change propaganda, and how scientific knowledge is necessary in order to make educated interpretations. In the arts, it may be debatable whether the Mona Lisa is a ‘sad’ or ‘joyful’ painting, but in the sciences global warming is a proven fact, and anything which says otherwise is a ‘bad’ interpretation. Inherently, this question is about the subjectivity of the arts and the objectivity of other AoKs. Just some food for thought!

6. If we conclude that there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds, how can we determine the boundaries of acceptable investigation within an area of knowledge? Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The last prescribed title is one of the most difficult, as it deals with ethics. Here, you’re asked to discuss ethical boundaries within two AoKs of your choice. Some good choices could be AoKs which are very research based, such as the natural sciences and history. Let’s break this down!

Ethics can be very tricky, as you’re essentially asked to discuss the boundaries between what is ethical and what is not. This is difficult, because ethics differ as much from person to person as they do from one AoK to another. 

In the sciences, ethical boundaries may refer to experiments involving human trials, for example. How can we determine when a new drug is safe for human testing, and is it ethical at all to test on humans? Similarly, in history we may consider the issues that arise when researching sensitive topics. For instance, is it ethical to interview holocaust survivors and urge them to remember their past traumas, all for the sake of historical records? At what point do we draw the line, and how are these ethical boundaries determined? This question is all about methodology and whether methodology within two AoKs is ethical, so if that sounds interesting, this is your go-to title!

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