“There are only two ways that humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment” To what extent do you agree with this statement ?

I have posted my thoughts about all of the other May 2015 Prescribed Titles, the index of these posts is here.

This post relates directly to Essay #2 “There are only two ways that humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or or through active experiment” To what extent do you agree with this statement ?”

These are just my thoughts on the essay, this is neither the correct answer nor the only answer, it is only designed to be a starting point for conversations between ToK students, and ToK teachers. if you are a student writing an essay for May 2015 please don’t ‘copy’ these thoughts as an essay, they are in no way substantial nor developed enough to constitute an essay.

Knowledge Questions.

I interpret the question in such a way that the KQ’s here revolve around knowledge production, there are obviously other ways to interpret the question. Possible KQ’s:

1) Is it ever possible for a cognisant mind to be in a passive state ?

2) Are there forms of knowledge production in addition to  passive observation and active experimentation ?

3) How does the act of studying phenomena influence / affect that phenomena ?

4) Does the framework of an identified ‘Area of Knowledge’ presuppose a varying degree of unified knowledge specific to that AoK ?

5) What role does prior learning have in subsequent knowledge production ?

6) What are the range of conditions needed for paradigm shifts (within a specific AoK, or through a specific WoK) ?

as always, the list of KQ’s is nearly endless, the ones that I include here are just to trigger ideas.

Ways of Knowing.

In order to draw out the question in terms of WoKs, I would consider in which ways specific Woks could be considered ‘passive observation’, and in which ways they could be considered ‘active experimentation’. Clearly there is no stated requirement for consideration of a specific number of WoKs, students will have to make their own judgement according to their written style and knowledge, try to achieve both depth with breadth.

Any WoK’s could be considered, I think that Intuition and Imagination would make very interesting discussion areas for students as they would really open up an exploration of definition of ‘active experiment and passive observation’, there would be obvious neurological links here. For the purpose of this article I will focus on 5 WoKs, but this is by no means an exclusive list, students should focus on WoKs of particular interest to them.

Perception, Emotion, Reason, Memory, Language.


The two main models of human sensory perception lend themselves rather well to the structure of the question. The two models are ‘top down’ constructivism, which could be seen in terms of active experimentation, and ‘bottom-up’ direct ecological models, which could be said to constitute a more passive observational process. The key idea here is one in which there is a more voluntary cognisant engagement in the perceptual process (top-down = active experimentation), and one in which perceptual processes are more fixed by external environmental forces, and therefore are more involuntary & fixed (bottom up = passive observation). This line of argument would need to be developed by the writer through use of empirical evidence and theory.


Emotion involves a relationship between a cognitive process and a physiological arousal, the direction and causality of this relationship is the subject of much debate. An argument could be made that theories which attribute primarily a physiological cause of emotional response (such as James-Lange Theory) are production of knowledge through passive observation. On the other hand theories which attribute emotional response to cognitive labelling of physiological arousal (such as Schachter & Singer) are knowledge production through active experimentation.

Real world examples could be drawn from the students own experiences, or from the empirical research evidence.


A process of rational discovery could be both observational and experimental (a discussion of hypothetico deductive method will show this). In the scientific method there is an obvious inter-relationship between observation & experiment, which can be found in any of the models of the Hypothetico Deductive Method. Such a discussion will allow students to explore the degrees of dis/agreement within the question.

Discussion of the process of convergent and divergent thinking may allow students to argue that divergent thinking is a more passive observational process, whilst convergent thinking is a more active experimental process. Research drawn from self-learning systems, or trial & error learning systems could be used in response. (There is possibly something to be drawn from the experimental results of the Prisoners Dilemma in this answer).


In terms of Memory we could contrast two of the main models of memory from cognitive psychology (Human Sci’s AoK). I would look at Atkinson and Shiffrin’s Multi-Store Model as a more passive observational model. I would contrast this with Baddeley & Hitch’s Working Memory Model as the more active experimental processes. Real world examples could be drawn from the empirical evidence, or from the student’s own experiences. A discussion of how memory is probably a combination of both models allows students to show ‘an extent’ of agreement with the question.

Knowledge production through memory as a WoK can be made in any of the AoK. For example, in The Arts students could look at ways in which prior artistic movements have been built upon to form a new artistic movement (e.g. the origins of 1980’s Hip Hop can be seen in Jazz, The Blues, Rock n Roll and traditional percussion – active experimentation led to Hip Hop).


This PT lends itself perfectly to an analysis through the prism of Language as a WoK, or a way of producing knowledge. At the heart of the academic research surrounding Language Acquisition is the question of whether infants need direct external stimulus to acquire language. Essentially the PT is very similar to the debate that linguistics, and developmental cognitive psychologists have been engaged in for many years.

The language acquisition debate could be roughy summarised as ‘nature vs nurture’. Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, and The Language Acquisition Device, argue that language acquisition is an innate process, and therefore, in terms of the question a more passive process (Pinker’s book The Language Instinct is a wonderful fascinating read on this). On the other hand more constructivist / behavioural theories have come from Skinner, Tomasello or Ambridge & Lieven. Such theories argue that social influence, modelling and internalisation are necessary for language development. As such, in terms of this question, they could be posited as a more active experimental approach.

Students could show ‘extent’ / degree in their answer (as required by the PT) by looking at some of the more recent research into morphology, and emergentism. Real world examples could be drawn from the empirical research base, case studies etc.

Areas of Knowledge.

A good response to the PT will draw upon both WoKs and AoKs. The approach that I take here is to draw out the AoK’s through the WoK’s. However, a perfectly good (and possibly better) essay could be written by reversing this structure. A student could draw out the WoKs by writing primarily about specific AoK’s. I think the question lends itself equally to either approach. Students may actually find it easier to start by looking at specific AoK, as this will allow them to discuss AoKs in which they feel confident. I have shown how this may be done by looking at Human Sciences as an AoK as an example. The same approach could equally be applied to any other AoK.

Human Sciences.

A good place to start looking at the nature of knowledge production is with the concept of Reactivity within the human sciences. Students could explore how reactivity changes the nature of phenomenon observed and measured. The range of research which could be cited could be drawn from Rosenthal’s Maze rats, Hawthorne Effect, Demand Characteristics etc.

An interesting discussion could be had around use of Participant and Non-Participant Observation methods in Psychology and Sociology. The KQ here would be whether non-participant observation is a form of ‘passive observation’, and as such, is this the most objective form of knowledge acquisition? This would introduce the concept of Lebenswelt / Lifeworld, and set up a classic Positivist vs Phenomonologist debate. In such a discussion positivism would take the role of the more passive observation, whilst phenomenology would be the active experimentation. This would represent an interesting mirror image set up by the question from the positions that these two approaches usually represent within the classic epistemology relating to human sciences.

A related area which could be looked at in terms of the Human Sciences are Emic and Etic approaches to understanding culture. Emic approaches would propose that the most valid understanding can be gained by joining the culture, being within it, and have an individually internalised understanding of that culture, it could be argued that this constitutes ‘active experimentation’.

Etic approaches propose that in order to develop a valid understanding a researcher needs to stand outside of the culture, therefore they will not be influenced by the cultural biases of a person within the culture. This would constitute the passive observer position within the question. Real life exemplification of both emic and etic approaches could be drawn from Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, Claude Levi Strauss, The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis, etc.

Let me stress again, this post is only intended as a starting point for discussion. It is neither the only, nor the right, answer. Students should use this post as a trigger for their own ideas, and structure. If you are writing an essay for May 2015 make sure that you have plenty of discussion with your ToK teacher, and give them a lot of lead in time to help you to develop your writing and thinking.

enjoy your explorations in ToK !







26 thoughts on ““There are only two ways that humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment” To what extent do you agree with this statement ?

  1. Hi! Thank you for your input! It helped me a lot.

    However, as a non-native English speaker I’m having problems with understanding the following Knowledge Question:

    Does the framework of an identified ‘Area of Knowledge’ presuppose a varying degree of unified knowledge specific to that AoK ?

    Could you please explain it using some simpler words?
    I would be more than grateful.
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi,

      “Does the framework of an identified ‘Area of Knowledge’ presuppose a varying degree of unified knowledge specific to that AoK ?” is asking whether labelling a set of ideas as an AoK is premised upon a paradigm ? Does the collection of those ideas, and the addition of a label, assume that those ideas are starting from the same premise, or approach to understanding the world ? For example, if we take an artistic view of love, and a scientific (biological) view of love, could they both exist within the same AoK ? or are they trying to achieve different things ? do they come from different places because they start with a different framework of assumptions about the world ?

  2. Hello. Could you please explain why and how the theories which attribute primarily a physiological cause of emotional response (such as James-Lange Theory) are production of knowledge through passive observation?

    Thank you in advance

    1. Hi, with this Knowledge Claim I have posited active experimentation as cognitive engagement, a sort of volitional thinking. I have posited passive observation as the physiological response of the body (unencumbered by active thinking / experimentation). The James Lange theory understands emotion as a primarily physiological response, as such it does not require volitional cognitive engagement (which is how I’ve defined Active Experimentation in this KC).

      Remember – this is not the right answer, it’s only a possible answer, there are a multitude of other possible answers. It all depends on which KC’s you use, and how you define your key terms.

  3. Hai, This question ” Are there another way that knowledge can be produced besides to passive observation and active experimentation? ” seems that you doesn’t discuss it as much. Can I possibly get any explanation?

    Thanks Mr. Trump!

  4. I’m very interested in your views of how knowledge can be produced in other ways. I was suggesting that knowledge can be produced through imagination and intuition, a non-direct process of latent memory, sub-conscious learning, and indirect memory processes. I hope that these suggestions help you.

  5. What examples can be used to support Memory as a way to produce knowledge that is not part of active experiment or passive observation?

    1. Hi Sara,

      the examples that you draw upon will very much depend upon how you interpret, and define, ‘active experiment’ and ‘passive observation’ in your essay. For example you could use the concept of indirect learning, or incidental learning, to demonstrate knowledge that is gained through processes other than ‘active experimentation’ and ‘indirect learning’, however, this very much depends upon how you have defined those terms.

  6. When it says “Observation”, does it imply the use of any of our senses?
    I am working on a definition, but am a bit unsure of whether or not it could – because i’ve read that in the natural-sciences, that the basis of the scientific-method is “observation”. – So would that mean that you could say we can observe sounds?
    I guess what I am meaning to get across is that the word is too ambiguous and am having trouble getting to it – could you help me, please?

    1. Hi Christopher,
      you are free to define ‘observation’ as you wish, you just need to make sure that you justify your definition. I certainly assumed that ‘observation’ meant any of our senses.

    1. Hi, glad to see that someone’s reading my stuff, and thinking about it !

      Yes you are correct, in the classic scientific typology positivism involves experimentation, and phenomenology is more observational. However, in the context of this essay title I was considered reactivity in the human sciences (interaction between researchers & participants), and was proposing that methods which have a high level of reactivity (eg phenomenological methods such as participant observation) could be considered ‘active experimentation’ for the purposes of this essay, and those with low reactivity (e.g. positivist methods such as lab experiments) could be considered ‘passive observation’, just for the purposes of this essay, in the context of reactivity.

      It was an unnecessary little intellectual game that I was having – well done to you for picking it up !

  7. Hi! Thank you for writing this, it helps a lot.

    However, I have trouble getting an idea of how answer and connect the prescribed title with the KQs that you suggested, especially the third one, which is “How does the act of studying phenomena influence/affect that phenomena?” Can you please give an example of how I can connect the KQs with the prescribed title?

    Thank you.

    1. I was thinking of questioning the nature of knowledge itself. Along the lines that knowledge cannot be separated from human experience, and that experience has no external objective reality. I was tending towards a Heisenberg Principle.

      I only give the KQ’s as examples of how I may write the essay, not as suggestions for readers. I very much recommend that you develop your own KQ’s, this will help in the structure and content of your essay. Enjoy your writing, best wishes.

  8. Hello,

    Thank you for your idea!
    But I am still wondering how to form your own KQ based on the prescribed title. Do we need a clear link with ” passive observation and active experiment” in the title?

    1. Yes, you certainly need to directly link with the title. However, your KQ may link to your definitions of passive observation and active experiment, or aspects of your definition.

      1. Thank you so much!
        I have some other questions:1) when the question says ‘…humankind can produce knowledge’, does it mean knowledge is created rather than discovered?2)Is it a good idea for me explain how passive observation and active experiment produce knowledge in two paragraphs and give counterclaims separately? 3) if I want to mention other ways of producing knowledge, should I do it in counterclaims or give a new paragraph?

        sorry for the inconvenience! Thanks again!

  9. Hi Ivy,

    in reply to your questions:
    1) whether knowledge is created or discovered is one of the key issues in the question which you may want to explore.

    2) It is probably best to separate the claims and counterclaims, however this very much depends upon the overall structure of your essay. Your ToK teacher can help you with the overall structure.

    3) If alternative ways of producing knowledge is one of your counterclaims then it requires appropriate treatment. Whether this is in a separate paragraph depends upon the structure of your essay. Your ToK teacher ca help you with the overall structure.

  10. Hi Daniel,

    First off, thank you for providing such an awesome service free to be viewed by everyone! Hard to find such things on the internet these days…

    Anyway. I read another guide to this question, and it suggested that the way the question is phrased suggests that we consider “passive observation” and “active experiment” as one entity; essentially, according to the guide, the question asks to what extent knowledge gained by humankind is “empirical”, if you will, knowledge.
    Is it ok for me to define the two together as empirical knowledge, and then propose a comparison of empirical knowledge obtainment vs. other forms (faith, intuition, inductive and deductive reasoning, arts, emotions)?
    Also, since passive observation is described as “observing a phenomenon without the knower having any influence on it”, would referencing the Heisenberg principle be relevant? What effect would that have on my thesis?

    Thanks in advance,

    1. There’s lots of great thinking here. It all comes down to how you define knowledge, production and empirical – I think that you are well on your way to writing a great essay !

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