6. “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

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:

Sensory Perception.

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.

Natural Sciences.

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.



49 thoughts on “6. “The whole point of knowledge is to produce both meaning and purpose in our personal lives.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

  1. in your KQ of “Is most knowledge acquired through directed human effort or the unintended consequence of environment ? (link to “purpose”)

    how do you measure “the most knowledge acquired”?

    and how would you address the question?


    1. Hi Dave,

      ‘most knowledge’ is a fairly immeasurable term beyond a critical examination of one’s own experience. Of course at an idiographic level there is nothing more valid than an individual’s own experience.

      I would address the question as set out in the structure above, by looking at the function of knowledge from a range of WoKs & AoKs.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Is it possible to explore the relationship between shared knowledge and personal knowledge under this prescribed title? For example, as we acquire knowledge in natural sciences, we convert shared knowledge to personal knowledge in the process of adding meaning and purpose of our lives. At the same time, we may also contribute to shared knowledge as we may have individual interpretations/response to certain knowledge. In this way, the interaction is two-way. Acquiring knowledge doesn’t only affect our personal lives, but also knowledge itself?

    The title suggests that knowledge only produces meaning and purpose in personal lives, but how about its impacts on a community, a country, a race or the humankind as a whole? If we discuss the effects of acquiring knowledge on the meaning and purpose of a collective unit of humans, then we can argue against the point the knowledge only serves to affect personal lives? E.g. A focus on tertiary sector (when everyone tends to acquire knowledge related to this sector) produces a knowledge economy. The influence will no longer be only about personal lives.
    We can think about the relationship between individuals and collective – are individuals necessarily affected by the collective? For example, with collective ownership in a communist state, what people are working for is not only for their self-interest? “The meaning and purpose” are elevated to an upper level of classification of people? Or the other way round, how do we know whether individuals affect the collective? If they do, the acquisition of knowledge will have impact on the meaning and purpose of the collective as well.


    1. Hi Joyce, many thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your proposed answer is superb, far more developed thinking than I put forward. I really like the idea of focusing on the inter-relationship between the individual and the collective. Well Done!

  3. Hi Daniel,

    For a KQ, I was wondering if this would be a good exploration “To what extent does our ability to fulfill purpose in our lives rely on the acquisition of knowledge to increase meaning?”.

    The claim being “our ability to fulfill purpose in our lives rely on the acquisition of knowledge to increase meaning”
    e.g: movie, slum dog millionaire.
    Purpose: Survival
    He grasp his meaning in life through his memories from the experiences he had in order to reach his purpose of becoming a millionaire for survival.

    The counter-claim being “our ability to fulfill purpose in our lives does not rely on the acquisition of knowledge to increase meaning”
    e.g. (personal knowledge).
    Purpose: wealth
    Maybe art has brought significant meaning to the individual but he never pursue this route. Instead, to reach his purpose, he pursue the route of studying business.

    At the end of the essay, I was thinking about discussing whether we can acquire knowledge to increase meaning without fulfilling purpose as well.


    1. Hi Christine,

      That’s a great way to approach the essay. Looking at the difference between purpose and meaning is a really good way of structuring this debate. I like your real world examples. Well done for your thinking on this!

  4. Could you argue that knowledge is an abstract thing (exists but not physically), and so there is no ‘point’ to it? It’s a bit like ‘numbers’. They’re there, but we don’t have to use them. Arguably, it’s inevitable for humans to interact with it. It seems pretty far-fetched that we can make a statement about an abstract concept such as the one in the statement.

    1. Hi Kevin, you’ve formulated an excellent claim which should allow you to develop a really good essay. Remember to look at counterpoints, include ToK concepts and to relate to real life examples. Best of luck with your essay.

  5. A few quick answers to the question: ‘how do we know whether we need to gain knowledge to give meaning and purpose to our lives ?’

    Could you argue that inanimate objects cannot use/process knowledge and by definition in this context, knowledge cannot produce meaning and purpose in their (hypothetical) lives? (I’ve defined meaningful as worthwhile to our personal development and purpose as long term goals. The difference between humans and such objects is that we can use/process knowledge; knowledge can directly affect us and that’s one way of knowing we need knowledge to gain meaning and purpose.

    1. It very much depends on how you structure your response to the essay title. You ask for “WoK and AoK for the argument that disagrees with this statement?” , unfortunately I’m afraid that I don’t really understand what you are asking for. You need to write an essay plan which focusses around at least one KQ, and some KC’s. It may help to read this article in detail.

      If you still don’t understand how to structure the essay after reading the post I would very much recommend that you see your ToK teacher ASAP, they will be able to help you to get started.

  6. Hi mr trump. I have a question. like what claims and counterclaims could be given for AOKs such as mathematics, history and arts?
    Because you have explained everything so well, but I would love if you could give it in more detailed 🙂

    1. Hi mr trump. I have a question. like what claims and counterclaims could be given for AOKs such as mathematics, history and arts?
      Because you have explained everything so well, but I would love if you could give it in more detailed

      1. Hi, there are strong claims and counterclaims which could be developed from any AoKs. I would very much urge you to pick AoKs in which you are able to develop your own claims and counterclaims rather than rely upon ones which I have made, I have given some examples for some AoKs above. Your essay will be stronger if you can develop your own claims and counterclaims.

    2. Hi, there are strong claims and counterclaims which could be developed from any AoKs. I would very much urge you to pick AoKs in which you are able to develop your own claims and counterclaims rather than rely upon ones which I have made, I have given some examples for some AoKs above. Your essay will be stronger if you can develop your own claims and counterclaims.

  7. Hello Mr. Daniel,
    do you think this is a good Knowledge question for this this prescribed topic?:
    How does ethical shared knowledge alter our personal ethical knowledge? In my opinion this is a bit broad but I believe that I will be able to write a strong essay about this KQ.

    Thank you very much for your time.

  8. Hey Daniel,

    I’m writing my Internal Assessment on this PT and the thesis of my paper states that knowledge has sculpted the world we live in today through incredible innovations in the human and natural sciences, examples to live by through historical knowledge, and the drive to live by the standards of being “morally educated” (Nicomachean Ethics-Aristotle) and living a productive, healthy life. If we can reason that and we the fact that the society we live in is the only thing we all know and and our lives revolve around the ways our society works, can’t you say that it’s somewhat of a syllogism? If knowledge=formation of society and formation of society=the way we live(the personal life of everyone), wouldn’t that mean that knowledge is in fact the reason we have meaning and purpose in our personal lives?

    I see above people pointing out things like knowledge having other purposes like the creation of economics and other examples, but I need to ask, are these creations not an important part of society and, in being so, a part of everyone’s personal life? Just because A homeless man who doesn’t work does not contribute to the national economy, it doesn’t mean his personal life is not affected by it! If this man were ever to eat at a government funded soup kitchen or live off of food stamps, he life is actually much more dependent on the economy than most people! Ok… I’m getting a little of task here (It’s so easy to do that in TOK)… Basically what I’m trying to say is that all creations of knowledge do in fact play a big role in the meaning and purpose of the personal life merely because of the fact that it is a part of society and our way of living.

    If you could dissect my thinking, add your thoughts, and any counterarguments, I would appreciate it a lot! Thanks for your time!

    1. Many thanks for posting and sharing your thoughts. I think that your post will probably be more helpful to students than my initial post !

      You ask if I could “dissect” your thoughts, I don;’t think you need me to add to your thinking – you’re doing a tremendous job already ! My only thought is it’s probably sensible to be careful about the definitions of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, you need to decide whether you treat them as one or two definitions.

  9. Your blog is a blessing!
    You got me through the first half of my essay (hooray!), and I have a question. What would be the “implications” of the arguments presented in the essay? Say, you were talking about religious knowledge. Would you explore the implications of purpose and meaning within the parameters of religious knowledge, or would you explore the implication of the limitations of this knowledge through meaning and purpose on your overall experience as a knower?
    We need more TOK teachers that know what they’re talking about, like you. Thanks!

    1. How you explore the implications very much depends upon the structure of your essay, this will vary from writer to writer. Personally I would explore implications of the limitation of knowledge in terms of the question, i.e. through meaning and purpose in our lives (as knowers).

      thanks for the kind words, and best of luck with your essay !

    1. To devise counterclaims you need to work out what the claims are first. The examples that I give are just starting points, you should develop your own claims and counterclaims, it’s not in your interests to copy the ideas that I’ve put up here, they’re just given as examples.

  10. Hi Daniel,

    I am also a bit confused about the example you raised for faith. Doesn’t that example contradict to what you mentioned earlier about while meaning increases, the purposes decreases?

    1. Yes, these are just possible starting points, this is not a coherent essay plan. It all very much depends upon how you define the question, and how you decide to approach the question.

  11. Hi Daniel,

    If I were to make a counter-claim “Knowledge does produce meaning in our personal lives”, are there any ideas or examples you could provide me? I am a bit lost.

    1. is “Knowledge does produce meaning in our personal lives” your counterclaim ? or is that your claim, and your counterclaim is actually “knowledge does not produce meaning in our personal lives” ?

  12. Hello, I have also picked this subscribed title and I am just wondering if
    our occupation, and how we contribute to our community can count as our ‘purpose’.

    1. You certainly can choose to define ‘purpose’ as occupation and community contribution, you just need to provide a rationale for the definition. I like this definition as you you could argue that it is how most people would define their ‘purpose’ in life, beyond their family – however, I might try to hunt around for some evidence to back this claim up (you may find appropriate evidence in the psychology, or sociology, of identity – how do people define themselves ?)

  13. Hi Daniel, I have submitted my tok essay a while ago. I used the broadbent idea and emotional intelligence idea of course relating to my own examples. Since I used those two ideas, is that considered plagiarism?

    1. Hi, congratulations on completing your ToK essay. As long as you wrote in your own words, and used your own examples, your work cannot be deemed to be plagiarism. We all draw upon other’s ideas when writing, the key to developing those ideas in an original way is to ensure that we contextualise them as our own, that we express them in an original way, and that we apply them to our own examples. If you have done this you have nothing to worry about.

  14. Hi, Daniel. Could you please clarify the difference between meaning of knowledge (importance?) in personal life and a purpose( usage?). Hope not to disturb you too much

    1. When referring to the meaning of knowledge I am referring to the semantic aspect of the knowledge, that is the meaning which the knowledge holds for the knower. When I am referring to the purpose of knowledge I am referring to the intended purpose of knowledge (as you correctly indicate).

      An example of this might be drawn from learning a new language. When a person first starts learning a language new words may have little meaning, and the purpose of acquisition of those words is to facilitate communication in that language. As familiarity of the language increases the meaning of those same words may change, however there purpose may remain the same.

      1. Thank you very much, Daniel! You have made it much clearer for me and it is now thousand times easier to reflect upon this question.

  15. Hi Daniel,
    I have two questions and hope that you will see them soon as I’m desperate.

    QUESTION 1. What do you think of this structure, what do you think is missing?

    A) Definition of meaning and role in personal lives
    B) definition of purpose and role in personal lives


    PART I – Knowledge as a producer of meaning in personal lives
    A) Claim – yes the whole point of knowledge is producing meaning
    1. WoK
    2. Example
    B) Claim – No the whole point of knowledge is not only producing meaning
    1. WoK
    2. Example

    PART II – Knowledge as the producer of purpose in personal lives
    A) Claim – yes the whole point of knowledge is producing purpose
    1. WoK
    2. Example
    B) Claim – NO the whole point of knowledge is not producing purpose
    1. WoK
    2. Example


    QUESTION 2. what do you think about the approach and text below, what weaknesses do you see? I’m analyzing a work that’s not mine, and want to understand the weaknesses of his approach. It’s only page one of the work.

    TOPIC: The whole point of knowledge is to produce both
    meaning and purpose in our personal livesWhat is meaning?

    Meaning is the idea of something represented by a word. For meaning to impact ones personal life, it needs to be of something that will impact their life for the better or for worst. Purpose is an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides your planned actions. Meaning and purpose both have a long lasting influence on ones life. Is knowledge the ONLY thing that produces meaning and purpose in ones life? Knowledge is the physiological result of perception, learning and reasoning, it is a finiteword that is only the stuff that YOU know. The insertion of the word “whole” means that the ONLY point of knowledge is to produce meaning and purpose in ones life, but that would mean that knowledge is not used for anything but those. It could also be perceived that meaning and purpose in ones life can only be made byknowledge. Although knowledge influences the meaning and purpose in ones life, it is not the only thing that makes it so. Also, meaning and purpose in our lives can be made from things rather than simply knowledge. ….

    1. Hi Jean,

      many thanks for your 2 questions. Considering the first question about the essay structure – it’s very hard to comment without knowing the student, and the examples that they are going to develop. However, my initial thought about the structure given is that it will be very difficult to reach a definite conclusion. That structure seems to agree and disagree with all parts of the essay title. This is certainly one way to approach it, but the success of that approach will very much depend upon the KQ’s considered. Advice – start with a some real life situations, develop KQ’s from these, and in turn develop a structure for the essay.

      With reference to the second question – I’m not sure where the writing comes from, and I wouldn’t want to be negative about a students work on a public forum. So, I will briefly list some characteristics that I think are found in good ToK writing:

      1. Acknowledges the range of perspectives, contexts & interpretations when establishing definitions.
      2. Works from the concrete to the more philosophical / hypothetical.
      3. Problematicises knowledge through the use of knowledge questions.
      4. Tests knowledge claims.
      5. Uses the language of ToK (e.g. WoKs, Shared & individual knowledge, AoKs etc)

      I hope that this is helpful, best wishes, Daniel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s