I have posted my thoughts on the other May 2015 Essay Titles, just click on “Essays” in the menu tab above for a link to thoughts on each essay.
This post relates to Prescribed Title #6 : “The whole point of knowledge is to produce meaning and purpose in our personal lives. To what extent do you agree with this statement ?”. This post is just my thoughts on the title. It is neither the right, nor the best, answer. It is merely meant to be a starting point for our community of ToK Learners (Teachers & Students alike). If you are writing this essay then don’t write what I say, it’s far better to say what you think.
Knowledge is a production process, not a finished product.
My first thought when reading this title was students may take the term ‘knowledge’ as meaning an end product, an outcome. I prefer to define ‘knowledge’ as a process of acquisition – It’s how we gain knowledge that shapes us as a knower, rather than the knowledge itself (knowledge is impermanent, conflictual etc) – this links well to a range of AoK’s such as The Hypothetical Deductive Method in Natural & Human Sciences, Historiography in History, Moral Dilemmas in Ethics, Globalisation in Indigenous Knowledge Systems etc.
It’s ‘personal’ ?
My second thought when reading the title was that the term ‘personal lives’ could lead to an anecdotal account. I interpret “our personal lives” as referring to a generalised experience of humans at a personal level, rather than referring to what happened to me in my life, e.g. ‘the experience of learning that there are differing historical accounts of antebellum slavery gave people a sense of inter-racial justice, and consequently the civil rights movement’ (generalised) , rather than ‘after reading The Black Jacobins I became a strong supporter of human rights’ (individualised).
However, I reiterate, these are just my thoughts, not ‘the right answer’, if you interpret it at a personalised level then follow your instincts – intuition is a very powerful WoK ! I was educated in social sciences so I take things to second order questions as a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s only one perspective.
“Whole point” ? it’s a wholly whole deep hole.
The title states “The whole point…,” – I interpret this as meaning ‘the only meaningful point’. That’s a rather difficult position to argue in extent (“To what extent do you agree with…”). It’s rather absolutist at the start, you either agree with it, or you don’t. I’d find it very hard to argue that I mainly agree ( or disagree) that the ‘whole’ point of knowledge is… However, don’t let me put you off a gradated answer, you may find a third way through this binary question. This is just my interpretation, not the right answer etc…,
The Knowledge Question.
I think the overriding question here is ‘how do we know whether we need to gain knowledge to give meaning and purpose to our lives ?’,
As such specific knowledge Questions could be along the lines of:
- Is most knowledge acquired through directed human effort or the unintended consequence of environment ? (link to “purpose”)
- Are apparently internal ways of knowing (such as intuition, faith or emotion) more meaningful than apparently externally experienced ways of knowing (such as reason, sense perception or language) ?
- Are meaning and purpose consonant concepts in relation to the acquisition of knowledge ?
- Can the evolutionary development of the Pre-frontal cerebral cortex help us to understand the function of directed knowledge acquisition ? , and in turn help us to understand the ‘meaning and purpose’ of ‘our personal lives’ ? (see my earlier post on Neurology and Morality if this KQ interests you).
You should have other KQs – please share below so that we can broaden our understanding of this question.
I interpret ‘meaning’ as a personally significant and resonant existence, and I interpret ‘purpose’ as a defined pathway of actions / behaviour.
“The more I see the less I know”.
The core idea that I would structure the essay around is that acquisition of knowledge increases meaning whilst, in some circumstances, decreasing purpose. This is possibly an idiosyncratic approach, but the essay asks for a degree of dis/agreement, and it’s the best way through the binary question that I can see.
This prescribed title does not explicitly require reference to AoK’s nor WoK’s, however this is a ToK essay, and therefore embedding content within the course structure is necessary, further the assessment criteria for the essay states the following:
“Depth of understanding is often indicated by drawing distinctions within WOKs and AOKs, or by connecting several facets of knowledge questions to these.
Breadth of understanding is often indicated by making comparisons between WOKs and AOKs. Since not all prescribed titles lend themselves to an extensive treatment of an equal range of AOKs or WOKs, this element in the descriptors should be applied with concern for the particularity of the title.“
Theory of Knowledge Guide 2015, IB Publishing.
The premise for the essay that I have chosen lends itself more naturally to a fuller exploration to WoKs than AoKs, this may not be the case for students who have chosen to interpret the essay in a different way. A balanced exploration of both AoKs & WoKs is equally acceptable, as is an exploration which is weighted towards AoKs.
Discussing how acquisition of knowledge may increase meaning whilst in some cases limiting purpose could be achieved through any WoK, I refer to a few here for the purposes of example only, students are advised to choose their own suiting their chosen Knowledge Questions.
Reference to WoKs:
Constructivist cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that meaning in perception is based on context, expectation and prior learning / memory. Therefore it could be argued that the search for knowledge adds (literal) meaning to our lives. (references such as Solley & Haigh (1957), Bruner & Minturn (1955) etc)
The attention system is the filter of all perceptual data. Constructivists (such as Broadbent (1958)) showed that the attention system is both context based, and influenced by prior experiences. As such, the acquisition of knowledge helps people to make sense of their lives through the attention paid to certain perceptual inputs in preference to others.
Students could explore Schacter & Singer’s research on emotional responses to stimuli, proposing that the labelling of stimuli (acquisition of knowledge) brings meaning to the arousal. However, a more developed discussion could be developed around the theories and research relating to Emotional Intelligence (EI). Such research shows that improving our ability to understand another person’s emotions increases our ability to develop meaningful relationships with others (knowledge of emotions increasing meaning in our lives).
The proposition of the question most clearly lends itself to Faith as a WoK. This WoK should be a rather straightforward area for students to explore in support of the PT. However, I would be interested in exploring cases where acquisition of knowledge through Faith has led to diminished faith, and possibly reduced meaning in the lives of those going through such a process. A real world example might be Priests who don’t believe in God (research by Daniel Dennett & Linda LaScola(2010)). I wrote a post about this on my personal blog last year, link here.
Another obvious WoK lending itself to the proposition is Language. Students could consider examples of Linguistic Relativity and The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis to show that linguistic meaning is experiential, cultural and transitory. As such the acquisition of (language based) knowledge gives meaning within a cultural context.
However, in order to argue counter to the question students could consider nativist heritability explanations of both linguistic acquisition and meaning. Excellent examples come from Stephen Pinker’s book The Language Instinct, and Chomsky’s research into The Language Acquisition Device.
There’s much scope for discussion of ways in which increasing acquisition of knowledge can lead to ethical dilemmas (a surfeit of contemporary real life examples can be drawn from media, faith, indigenous knowledge systems, politics etc). Whether such dilemmas increase, or diminish, either meaning or purpose in personal life is best left to the judgment of the individual writer.
Those interested in this AoK could consider debates around deontology vs consequentialism, and it’s influence on the purpose and meaning of the lives involved. An immediate example which comes to mind would be the decision of a national leader to engage in an overseas conflict in order to reduce the potential for greater harm if no action were taken. The focus here would be on the acquisition of the knowledge in order to make the decision rather than the decision itself.
Kuhn argued that the development of scientific knowledge would inevitably lead to recurrent scientific revolutions, and ultimately paradigm shifts. In relation to this essay students could explore how such paradigm shifts have real world consequences, and whether such consequences increased the meaning and purpose of people. Such an example may be the increase of positivist thinking in Renaissance Europe, and the consequent development of scientific fields such as medicine, physics and psychiatry etc.
I would be very attracted to discussing how historical knowledge is often used to define ‘meaning and purpose in personal lives’ . Real life examples could be drawn from nationalism, colonialism, state ideology, religious or economic systems. Reference could be made to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, etc this list is near endless.
Another track may be to look at ways in which improving historical knowledge increases our understanding of the causes of social/economic/political change, and thus increases the meaning and purpose in life. Such a discussion would be a way to show the gradations of “extent” which is asked for in the question.
What I present here are just a few ways to start looking at the question. Remember, this is neither the right, nor best, way to answer this question. It is merely meant to be a starting point for discussion within our community. You may disagree with my KQ’s, or my way through the question. Such disagreement is all for the better – form your own voice in your essay and you will probably get a better grade, most importantly you will add ‘meaning and purpose to your life’ !
best of luck to all writing ToK Essays for May 2015.