Investigating PT3 – Systemic Constraints?

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This is the third of six special TOK posts to directly assist students and teachers in appreciating vital nuances associated with each of the May 2021 Prescribed Titles.  For each prescribed title I will identify some initial key concepts and highlight some specific approaches to address them along with specific Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resources that can concretely assist in the development of a strong TOK essay for that particular title.  

This piece discusses PT3: “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.”  Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. 

Key Concepts:  

My approach to this title would be somewhat different from the first two discussed in earlier posts. Rather than embarking on a detailed search for a meaningful definition associated with a given concept highlighted in the title, in this case I feel fairly certain that I get the overall gist of what the issue is, and the associated subtlety to be explored is not so much a matter of definition per se, but more of interpretation and personal belief.   

In other words, I don’t believe that it would be terribly fruitful for me to spend my time investigating, What do I mean by a label here? or Under what circumstances can we be said to have our understanding constrained? The claim under consideration here seems to be that if we want to coherently structure our knowledge about the world around us it is necessary to group what we know into specific categories or areas; and that by carrying out this necessary grouping or labelling we will also, unfortunately, inevitably miss the development of some further insight that would have increased our knowledge.  

Personally, I find this the most interesting title of the six because I’m not actually sure what I believe. It might well be true; moreover, it might actually be quite a deep insight. For years educational theorists have trumpeted the importance of “interdisciplinarity”—that we need to move beyond the so-called “fixed silos” of our knowledge framework and instead “make connections across them”.   But the statement in this title is not, it is worth emphasizing, asking us to weigh in on  whether or not we believe in the merits of an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge creation, but rather whether the need for such interdisciplinarity will necessarily always be with us as a direct consequence of the inevitable act of structuring what we know.  

Further Analysis:

So first a bit of formal structure. 

For me to agree with the statement, I need to believe that:

  1. In order to organize knowledge one needs to put labels on things
  2. An inevitable consequence of labelling our knowledge is to constrain one’s understanding

Now, while I freely admit that it’s logically possible to believe that knowledge (or anything else, for that matter) can be “organized” without developing a schema of specific categories (i.e. “labels”) of some sort or another, personally I simply can’t imagine such a thing—indeed, for me, having some sort of categorization structure is precisely what I mean by being “organized”.  

Which means that the degree to which I will agree or disagree with the statement in the claim is directly related to #2 above. More specifically, can I imagine a situation where categorizing my knowledge doesn’t constrain my understanding (in which case I have a counterexample to the claim at hand)?   Maybe if I use sufficiently flexible labels, my understanding would be constrained after all, so the question is more about how I label my knowledge than whether or not I do.  Or perhaps those constraints only arise in some instances, like for particular AOKs in particular circumstances. 

After all, who’s to say that “constraining our understanding” is an established universally-agreed-upon concept anyway?  Perhaps one person’s “constraint” is someone else’s “insight”?

Whatever your final position, you’re going to need some specific examples to help illustrate your views.  They might also be highly useful to help you converge on what you actually believe in the first place. In what follows, I’ll offer some concrete examples that can naturally be interpreted in various different ways. 

Some Related Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal Resources:

In Beyond the Textbooks, Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt relates how, by deliberately ignoring standard textbook views of how atoms of materials could be possibly arranged, he extended our understanding of a new state of matter known as “quasicrystals”  This example could be used to demonstrate the inherently constraining aspects of specific knowledge categories in the physical sciences in the form of “rigid laws”.  Alternatively, it could be used to illustrate the claim that constraints in understanding are much more a function of the training and personal orientation of a researcher than in a label per se. 

In Rethinking the Fifth, Duke University philosopher and law professor Nita Farahany reexamines the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution in light of our enhanced understanding from modern neuroscience. This example could be used as evidence that any present categorization structure inevitably constrains our understanding and thus needs to be continually reassessed, or as a demonstration of how, by ascribing multiple “labels” to the same knowledge, we can potentially avoid constraints that might otherwise occur. 

In Modelling Politics, Tufts University philosopher Brian Epstein describes how a successful political model must fundamentally incorporate many things that go beyond most standard characterizations of the political realm. As per other examples in this section, this clip simultaneously demonstrates the constraints inherent in a given knowledge categorization framework as well as our potential ability to transcend them.

In Frank Drake’s Agenda, astronomer and former SETI director Jill Tarter illustrates how, by grouping what we know and don’t know into a transparent framework, Frank Drake set the stage for us to better address the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence. This example concretely highlights the benefits—and potential liabilities—inherent in a given organizational framework of knowledge.

In Rethinking History and Towards Better Explanations, Princeton University historian David Cannadine details how he believes that deep historical understanding can be extracted by moving beyond the standard categorization scheme of religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization. This example simultaneously illustrates the power of “labelling constraints to our understanding” and our ability to transcend them. 

A wealth of additional examples directly relevant to this topic can be found in the TOK Samplers Developing Understanding and Personal Perspectives, as well as the TOK Essay Practice Video for May 2020 PT2 which can all be access on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet or if you are interested in an individual teacher or student subscription, make sure to visit our informational website –IdeasRoadshowIBDP.com – to learn how Ideas Roadshow’s TOK resources have been fully updated to be fully aligned with the new TOK curriculum while offering strong support during the transition period for the ‘old’ TOK course.  You can watch an ‘on-demand’ recording of our New TOK Webinar, here.

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