Exploring PT 2 – Sharpening Our Definition

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This is the second of six TOK Tuesdays posts that briefly explore various nuances and concepts associated with each of the May 2020 TOK prescribed titles.  In each post I will highlight a few specific themes that students may wish to consider related to each title, themes that are fleshed out in considerable detail, together with specific examples, in the corresponding Titled Assistance video available directly on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.  Subscribers might wish to regard these posts as high-level summaries of those videos, illuminating large-scale structural motivations that can further assist students both before and after watching the associated Ideas Roadshow Titled Assistance video. 

Today we tackle PT 2 for May 2020.  Once again it’s worth emphasizing that these thoughts, together with those in the related Titled Assistance video, are strictly personal opinions and are designed to highlight key conceptual points associated with each title rather than provide any particular thesis or response to the title in question. 

While all TOK prescribed titles naturally contain a substantial amount of nuance for students to interpret through their understanding of TOK concepts, it is not always immediately obvious where, precisely, to begin. With PT 2, however, this is not so much the issue. The good news here is that the conceptual crux of the title is fairly easy to identify, with the notion of “a sharp line” standing out, as it were, quite strikingly. 

While some might first opt to delve into the details of what exactly is meant by “descriptions” and “explanations”, since at the end of the day we are asked to give our judgement on whether or not “a sharp line” exists between them, it seems quite reasonable, for me at least, to focus our attention on what that means in this context before turning our attention to the particulars. 

Well, it’s always good to have a sense of how to begin. But how can we go about, practically, the business of constructing such a definition?

Just as I discussed in last week’s PT 1 post, Establishing the Terrain, my approach here will be to start with some general statement that I can then probe and refine further as I increasingly delve into the associated subtleties. Recall that in Establishing the Terrain, we started with a rough-and-ready correspondence between each of the two approaches and particular AOKs, then moved on to consider specific exceptions to this rule before, eventually, investigating a range of specific assumptions buried within the prescription itself.  

Why do I opt to do things this way?  Well, part of it is surely a matter of taste. But the principal advantage, I believe, to the technique of starting off with a simplified picture that you know only tells a small part – if any – of the full story, is that you can actually start somewhere concrete.  Otherwise there’s a real risk that our investigatory efforts quickly get bogged down in shifting layers of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” types of commentary and we feel that we have no sense of solid ground on which to build a coherent argument. 

When it comes to PT 2 I’m naturally provided with such a starting point because it so happens that many practicing experts in both the human sciences and the natural sciences do actually subscribe to a general, big-picture version of the claim in the title, or at least go about their day jobs as if they do, which is more or less the same thing. So that seems a natural place to begin in our quest to develop an appropriate definition for “a sharp line”.

Opinions naturally vary considerably on whether this is a good or bad thing, but the astute reader will note that such a value judgement takes us much further away from the title than we should probably go. The only thing we are asked to express is our level of agreement with the claim at hand.  Which, in turn, is a matter of definition.  

As you doubtless expect, a closer look reveals that things are hardly that simple, and this “sharp line” is significantly fuzzier than one might naively suppose: not only is it often the case that there is a clear relationship between the two things (so that the types of explanations developed often depend strongly on the descriptions), but it is not infrequently the case that both descriptions and explanations are constructed simultaneously.   

The Titled Assistance – Supporting PT 2 video is now available on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal to all individual subscribers and subscribing schools.  It can be found in the Student TOK section, Teacher Resources section and general Theory of Knowledge section (under “TOK Compilations”).  It provides a detailed discussion of PT 2 with four specific examples from our resources to highlight the concepts under discussion, with the accompanying PDF recommending a further 4 resources.  It is slightly less than 30 minutes long.

For information about an affordable individual teacher or student subscription which provides full access to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, including all Titled Assistance videos PT 1-6 please visit our website, for students: here, and for teachers: here.