Searching for Nuance

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While different people believe in widely varying approaches to preparing students for their TOK essay, one point all experts share is that it is a very bad idea for students to attempt to rewrite the title in their own words in an effort to increase their comprehension of what is being asked.

Why? 

To answer that, it’s worth returning to the core theme of the first post in this series called Theory of Titles where I encouraged both teachers and students to use their imagination to consider what those who made the titles might have had in mind.   

Without trying to get too cute or self-referential about language as a way of knowing, the point to stress here is simply that words matter.   Those who created the titles didn’t just choose their words randomly or haphazardly, but rather as part of an explicit attempt to open the door to a wide range of subtlety and nuance deliberately crafted for the student to rigorously explore in her essay.   All of which implies that if students “reword” the titles, they will inevitably find themselves missing many of those vital nuances that a good essay needs to highlight and examine.

Sometimes people talk about “unpacking” the titles. Perhaps I’m being a stickler here, but it’s not the sort of metaphor that I like, because the very notion of “unpacking” implies to me that there’s one clear and obvious way to do things to get at the underlying essence of things. After all, when I unpack my suitcase after settling into a hotel, I certainly don’t expect to find anything more than what I put in there a few hours earlier, and I’m naturally confident that several minutes of careful effort will result in my re-establishing the same sort of order that I had at home before I left. 

But TOK isn’t like that at all.  Indeed, the whole point of the TOK essay is to demonstrate a capacity to meaningfully explore subtle and complicated issues from a variety of different perspectives.   That hardly means that one can’t have strong, well-constructed opinions or that all positions are equally appropriate or relevant: if that were the case, there would be no point in the TOK essay at all, as all grades would necessarily be the same.   

No, what it means is that a strong essay is one that successfully tackles the title in a way that focuses on the nuances of the related TOK concepts for which the specific wording of the title provides distinct clues. 

So what are those clues?  Where’s the nuance?  

Well, once again, the point of the exercise is for each student to carefully examine things so as to come up with his own conclusion.   But as usual, I’ll give you my personal take on things as a clear way to get the ball rolling and demonstrate more concretely what I’m talking about.

A general comment to make before I begin is that I tend to have a particularly strong reaction to blanket statements made in a supremely confident manner.   Whenever I’m presented with some smug fellow who stands up and unhesitatingly declares, “Obviously it follows that…” or “The only conclusion that can conceivably be reached is…” I feel a distinct urge welling up inside of me to smack him in the face, or at the very least find a compelling counterexample.  

If not properly harnessed, such sentiments can certainly get one into trouble.   But when it comes to TOK, these feelings are actually very helpful, serving as a personal warning system against invariably dubious claims – emotion as a way of knowing, if you will. 

Many TOK titles provoke precisely this sort of visceral response in me.  But of course, as I mentioned earlier, they were doubtless explicitly designed to do so, because a classic way of showcasing the need for nuance is to present people with concrete, jarring examples of where it is so obviously withheld.

Four of the May 2020 prescribed titles make me feel immediately uncomfortable in precisely this way: 2, 4, 5 and 6.  Let me take each in turn, highlighting the specific wording that makes me feel queasy.

For the second title, my focus is immediately drawn to the notion of “a sharp line”.  How can we be certain that there is, in fact, a difference between a description and an explanation? To what extent are some “explanations” little more than mere descriptions?  And if there is a difference between the two, what is it exactly?  

In the fourth title, the word primarily responsible for my anxiety is simply “is”.   To what extent can we be certain of the role of anything? How do we know that the divide between justifying and understanding is as clear and distinct as is implied?  And what does it mean to “aid understanding” anyway? Is that the sort of thing that can be precisely measured?  

The two words that trigger my discomfort in the fifth title are “every” and “need”.  How can I be certain that every theory is “limited”, and what do I really mean by that anyway?  And then there’s “need”, a word which inserted here seems little less than the acme of hubris.   To what extent is it always necessary to have more than one theory in play?  I can certainly think of lots of examples where this is not the operating philosophy, so clearly there are many people out there who believe something quite different. 

The last title in this gut-wrenching series is the sixth one.  Here the obvious culprit is “wholly”, with honorable mention going to the twin notions of “present knowledge” and “past knowledge”, confidently asserted matter-of-factly as if I, and everyone else, would unhesitatingly be able to distinguish between them at any given moment.   Which, as it happens, we can’t. 

Then there are the two other titles that are a little less obviously disturbing, and therefore might require a bit more linguistic reflection to pinpoint the corresponding nuance. 

In the first title, I’d focus on exploring the difference between “what is” and “what could be”.   To what extent can we be certain that such a difference objectively exists? Under what circumstances is it even possible to have seen “what is”, and what are the constraints on “what could be”?  

Meanwhile, for the third title, the words that particularly spring out to me are “matter”, “influence” and “seriously”.   Why should we even care about “how seriously” others take our knowledge? Is a theory any less true or valid in the days when it is considered “fringe” than after it has become generally accepted?  What do we mean, here, exactly by “influence”? What are the factors at work that are responsible for changes in community attitudes and beliefs.  

Such are my thoughts.   As usual, opinions will vary as to whether my personal hunt for nuance has been successful.   

But all that really matters is that everyone embarks on her own.

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