Exploring PT 1 – Establishing the Terrain

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Today marks the first of 6 TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explores various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles. In each of these posts, I will offer some specific suggestions on how students might productively begin to attack each title.  

A separate, detailed “TOK Titled Assistance” video for each of the 6 prescribed titles will be available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal as of October 28 where many more concepts will be explored, complete with specific examples drawn from our extensive collection of TOK resources that are part of our database.

Establishing the Terrain

Before I begin, it’s worth once again stressing that all of what follows is strictly my opinion and in no way reflects the official position of the IBO or anyone else. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful even if you disagree with its contents, as a way of suitably stimulating discussion. So let’s begin.

This title asks us to explore the distinction between two approaches to the knowledge generation process: “seeing what is and asking why” and “seeing what could be and asking why not”.

 There are, of course, many ways to move forwards here, but for me the most obvious way to proceed is a 3-stage approach, starting with some rough generalizations before moving towards increasing levels of nuance and subtlety. It is this initial sketching out of the general landscape that I am referring to when I talk about “establishing the terrain” as a helpful approach to get started with one’s analysis. 

I. Establishing the Terrain

Is there anything to the claim that a meaningful distinction between the two approaches exists at some very basic level? Can I say something like, “Very roughly, it seems that most of the time those associated with these AOKs adopt position 1 while those involved with those AOKs adopt position 2”?  In other words, I’m not going to dive right in and examine the nuances immediately, but rather try to establish some very general, coarse-grained lay of the land.

Is it even possible to do so?  Personally, I think that it is possible, and that by doing so we can help to create a reasonable structure going forwards that will not only help us probe the corresponding subtleties (i.e. when our general landscape is not the case) but also guide us in choosing a correspondingly appropriate pair of AOKs to examine. Others, of course, might well disagree with the particulars of a general assessment, but I would recommend that you start with some basic judgement that you think holds in at least a good many cases, otherwise it is difficult to know how to get started. 

II. Investigate exceptions 

The principal advantage to establishing a general landscape is that it gives us a ready framework to explore exceptions. Notwithstanding the fact that, generally speaking, approach 1 is often associated with these particular AOKs and approach 2 is often associated with those particular ones, are there times when the opposite is the case? Are there times when neither case holds? Are there some AOKs that strongly resist even the most basic categorization procedure when it comes to these two approaches? Do different patterns start to emerge if you look at some subcategories of particular AOKs? 

Any successful TOK essay will cogently explore the different shades of nuance associated with a title, and this is our first chance to do so in earnest. Indeed, the reason why we started off framing things in a general, non-nuanced way was precisely to give ourselves an easy mechanism to explore the interesting and revealing cases of when things didn’t fit our rough-and-ready categorization procedure. 

III. Question the initial assumptions 

Once we’ve established, as is not terribly difficult to do, that such exceptions exist, it’s time to go even deeper and probe our initial assumptions to see what additional insights we can develop.  

What were those assumptions?  

Well, first off we assumed that each of the two approaches was completely well-defined and coherent. A simple glance reveals that this is clearly not always the case. There are plenty of times, for example, when “seeing what is” is not so straightforward, as many astute TOK students will surely appreciate. Sometimes our senses fail. Sometimes our judgement fails. Sometimes there is no independently objective “what is” to “perceive” in the first place. So it can be complicated.

And then there’s the assumption that these two approaches are completely distinct from each other, and that I’m aware at all times whether or not I’m pursuing approach 1 or approach 2.  But it’s far from clear that that’s the case either. Many avenues of knowledge investigation simultaneously involve some of one and some of the other.  

Lastly, there’s the possibility that there might even be a relationship between the two approaches. In other words, not only might I find myself doing a bit of both from time to time, but that the very way I do option 1 might somehow impact the way I do option 2, or vice-versa. In this case that would amount to recognizing that the extent to which I “have seen what is” could impact my perception of “what could be”, say, or that the particular way I am going about “asking why” could conceivably be related to how I might specifically go about asking “why not?”.   

This, too, seems not only possible, but positively likely in certain circumstances at least.   Of course the challenge is to examine those circumstances in some detail and try to draw some specific conclusions that are more focused and illuminating then “It’s all very complicated”. 

But without having a suitable structure to start from, it’s often very difficult to even begin. 

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