Sunday, March 16, 2014

Responses (November 2014) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for November 2014 (with some of my personal brief responses) is collected in this post.

Topic Titles
  1. “Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.  
  2. “Knowledge takes the form of a combination of stories and facts.” How accurate is this claim in two areas of knowledge?  
  3. “In the production of knowledge, it is only because emotion works so well that reason can work at all.” To what extent would you agree with this claim in two areas of knowledge?  
  4. “To gain an understanding of the world we need to make use of stereotypes.” With reference to two areas of knowledge, to what extent do you agree with this statement?  
  5. “The task of history is the discovering of the constant and universal principles of human nature.” To what extent are history and one other area of knowledge successful in this task?  
  6. “We may agree about general standards in the arts but disagree as to whether a particular work has artistic merit. In ethics the situation is reversed: we may disagree about ethical theories but we all know an unethical action when we see one.” Discuss.  


There are two general frameworks that may be of use here. The first is to consider the uses of information: describe, explain, predict, invent/imagine, connect, transform; these can be remembered using the acronym DEPICT. The second is the hierarchy of knowledge construction and use: data given context or value is information; information that is tested for validity, reliability and utility becomes knowledge; knowledge used in the best possible way in a certain situation is called wisdom — these can be remembered using the mnemonic DIKW.

I will, as usual frame some responses here after a decent period of time.


That time having passed, here are some useful notes.

T1 really requires a clear understanding of description vs transformation, as well as a simple definition of the world. To describe is to detail one's apprehension (sensory perception, emotional response etc) of things in a way that contains some kind of truth—the truth that is inherent in a particular AOK. For example, from the AOK viewpoint of the arts, the truth is largely aesthetic, based on how good a work is at evoking a desired response from its audience. To transform is to change things in a way that is contingent on the working-out of the AOK; to use the same example of the arts, this would mean that the arts not only seek to describe an aesthetic truth but to present it in a way that forces people to react to it, to acknowledge it, to change in response to it.

T2 is pretty basic—stories are narratives, facts are the singular elements used to fill out and construct the narratives. A fact need not be true in all senses; after all, 'fact' comes from the Latin word meaning 'to make' (e.g. as in 'manufacture' = 'make by hand', 'factory' = a place where things are made, 'factor' = an element, component or guiding principle used in making something). Hence, in Gothic novels, you might say 'vampires drink blood' is a fact. All forms of knowledge are composed of narrative structures (hence there is a 'literature' in any discipline) given substance by their own facts. The question really requires some kind of analysis about how (much) these two things combine in two specific AOKs in order to create the knowledge we associated with those AOKs.

T3 looks difficult, but the key to it is to understand what emotion is. Emotion is the set of biochemical and physiological responses that accompany a change in psychological state. The inputs that trigger such responses can be sensory (i.e. via the nervous system) or mnemonic (from memories) or imaginative (from consideration of non-actual scenarios and ideas). Reasoning, on the other hand, is a process by which a person decides or attempts to form logical connections between things—events, facts, processes, data, and so on. The impulse to actually do such a thing is almost always emotional. This is the basic level of the argument. However, at a more advanced level, emotion allows humans to make quick judgements (cf. 'gut feel') when digesting huge amounts of data, thus simplifying the situation (whether accurately or not) when considering complex cases. In different AOKs, these things have different levels of application, and that should be discussed.

T4 requires an understanding of stereotypes. The original meaning of the term is that of a solid object used to make an imprint or used as a mould for producing identical copies. 'Stereo' is from the Greek for 3D (as in 'stereophonic' = having the properties of 3D-sound) and 'type' has one of its usual meanings—the original form of something (as in 'typeface', 'typical'). The question therefore is asking us to evaluate how useful the deployment of 'master images' or 'standard prototypes' is in different AOKs. The usual social definition of stereotypes as rudimentary descriptive templates for groups of people can only be used in the humanities/human sciences AOKs, so beware.

T5 requires an understanding of history as a discipline. History is a purely descriptive and explanatory art. It does NOT make predictions; once it does, it is treading the ground of the human sciences. For example, economic history is the history of human evaluation, transaction and resource allocation in the realm of goods and services. Once this is used to predict human behaviour, it becomes economics. Same for social history and sociology, political history and political science, and many others. The question then is whether such an approach (description and explanation of human events in a chronological matrix) can actually uncover general principles applicable to all humans, and whether another AOK's approach might be better or worse at this.

T6 is hard only for students who cannot define 'the arts'—or those who cannot differentiate between morality, law, ethics and similar constructs. Since the arts are all forms of human action designed to produce something that conveys emotion or produces a desired emotional response, the question is whether humans do indeed have general artistic standards or can produce specific evaluations of merit. The answer is, as always, in between—you can have scores in gymnastics, choir competitions, karate, platform diving, dance, pottery... and they will all have some variance. But some have very tight rubrics of performance, relative to others. Ethics, being a socially-constructed sometimes-philosophical basis for evaluating 'right behaviour' in a human social context, suffers similar issues. It is clearly wrong to steal in a society which has property rights; it is impossible to steal in a society that doesn't have such rights. It's the student's job to define both these areas and craft a nice debate.

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