3. “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss.

Beethoven_Waldmuller_1823My thoughts on this essay title should not be taken as a ‘model answer’, nor a complete essay structure. They are just my initial ideas on how to answer this essay question. Those ideas are certainly not the only way to answer the question, nor even the ‘best way’ to answer the question, they are just starting points for discussion within our ToK community.

This is my favourite prescribed title from the November 2015 series. This does not mean that it is the best, nor easiest, title. It’s just the title which most closely links to my interests, of course you should choose the title which most closely links to your interests.

In planning this essay I would start by identifying real life situations (RLS) in which group and individual knowledge is in conflict. I would then draw out the ToK content from that RLS (e.g. Knowledge Questions, AoK, WoK etc). I would then develop a conclusion. Therefore, I will go through this process below for 3 RLS. Again, I stress, that these are neither sufficiently detailed nor substantial enough to constitute essays, or even essay plans. What I present here are summarised examples of a particular approach to the essay. Should you choose this essay I would strongly recommend that you develop your own RLS (probably ones which are far more contemporary than my efforts !).

You will need to define ‘knowledge’ near to the beginning of this essay, you could use a secondary source definition of knowledge or devise your own definition. As you write the essay you may find yourself going back and redefining ‘knowledge’ to fit with the extrapolation of your RLS, should this occur it is a good sign!

Real Life Situation #1: Copernican Heliocentrism.

Copernican Heliocentrism is the classic example to give when looking at the role of groups in knowledge verification. The process by which Heliocentrism was established as accepted knowledge is a clear challenge to the position of the quote in the PT. I will briefly explain (for those who do not know the story) why I see it as a challenge to the quote, then I will propose some possible counterclaims using this RLS.

The Geocentric model of the cosmos (with earth at the centre), as developed by Claudius Ptolemaeus was accepted for over 1,000 years. The Geocentric model positions earth, (and therefore humans), as the most important feature of the cosmos. This model was strongly supported by The Catholic Church and the political hierarchies of Europe from 6th-15th centuries. Copernicus worked with Galileo Galilei to produce the Heliocentric Model of the solar system (they were able to do this because of use of the newly developed telescope), this is where there could be a discussion on the nature of a more personal based knowledge. The Heliocentric Model was eventually accepted because it could better predict the movement of planets (the group acceptance). However, the theory required further work by Kepler and Newton before the Copernican model was more widely accepted than the Ptolemaeic model.

The above description is fairly well known, and allows for a discussion of two key areas: (i) when is ‘knowing’ possible (is it a the individual stage of Copernicus, or the group stage of scientific acceptance?), and (ii) Did verification of the (scientific) group deem Copernicus’ theory ‘Knowledge’ ?.

In counter we could further explore those definitions of ‘knower’ and ‘knowledge’. We could apply a range of WoKs to the process of knowing in order to show that Copernicus ‘knowledge’ was no better than those who held with the Ptolemaeic model, and the process of knowing was no more developed in Copernicus’ development of the model than in Ptolemaeus development of his model. Students could apply Faith, Intuition and Emotion as WoKs to this argument structure, such WoKs could be seen in terms of knowledge construction and cultural definition. Students could also extend the counter discussion to look at the contextualisation of knowledge within a knowledge framework, or AoK. This debate would propose that for something to be accepted as knowledge within a particular framework it needs to meet specific requirements, as such an argument could be developed that the Ptolomaeic model could be accepted as knowledge within a religious knowledge framework whilst the Copernican model would not meet the ‘knowledge criteria’, and as such would not be accepted as knowledge. Students can vary the knowledge frameworks (AoK’s) and qualifying criteria as appropriate for their answer.

This link shows that : Some people still don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun!

Real Life Situation #2: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Even if you’re not a Classical Music buff you will know Beethoven’s Ninth when you hear it, it is universally acclaimed, and one of the most frequently played musical pieces, especially ‘Ode to Joy’. Beethoven started to lose his hearing in 1796, he continued to compose and perform until 1811, at which point he ceased performing as his hearing was so drastically impaired. He wrote the Ninth Symphony between 1822-1824, by this point Beethoven was profoundly deaf (he famously couldn’t hear the applause at the end of the first performance of The Ninth, and failed to turn around to accept the audience’s congratulations). Beethoven composed a number of innovations into the Ninth such as the inclusion of choral lyrics. Many more details can be found here and here.

Let’s get back to the ToK… Beethoven’s composition of a widely acclaimed symphony whilst being profoundly deaf is a real life situation which directly tests the quote in the title. This example gives rise to a number of questions which could be explored:

  • If Beethoven was unable to hear the notes he was composing did he rely more upon group verification or upon memory to know whether the composition worked ?
  • Was it only the audible form of the composition which constituted ‘knowledge’ ? (ie the form which could be verified by the group), or could the private form of the composition, known only to Beethoven, also constitute ‘knowledge’?
  • If the Ninth Symphony had not been an acclaimed success (ie with little group verification) could it still be designated as knowledge ? might it been seen as ‘worse knowledge’ ? are we therefore able to start devising a hierarchy of knowledge from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ ?

This RLS lends itself to the application of ways of knowing. There is an apparently dialectical debate involving various ways of knowing and the constitution of knowledge arising from this RLS. I will explain it in terms of perception, memory and imagination, however you could choose whichever WoKs interest you. Essentially, if we take sense perception as the primary way of knowing it could be argued that as Beethoven was unable to hear the Ninth then it did not exist for him as knowledge (which could be developed as support for the PT). However, if we took Memory as the primary WoK then we could argue that he was able to remember how the notes would have sounded, and therefore did not need the verification of the group in order for the composition to be designated ‘knowledge’ – it was known to him. Finally, a very similar argument could be made with regards to imagination as a WoK. Beethoven would be able to imagine how the notes worked together to form a new composition, as such the composition was known to him without the need for recourse to the group. Obviously this example gives much scope for a discussion of the conventional debate regarding personal and shared knowledge as defined within the IB ToK Guide.

Real Life Situation #3: The Cuban Missile Crisis October 1962.

Any historical, or contemporary event, which involves a small group of people making decisions which effect large groups of people lends itself to the prescribed title. Within this framework we see the dynamic of ‘knowledge’ held by an individual being discussed within the small group, and either being validated or rejected. Further, in many of these situations the ideas of the individual can become accepted as tacit truths by the group, or internalised as an incorporated aspect of self identity by members of the group. As such the arguments for the proposal in the PT become very strong.

I have given the real life example of this process happening as the Cuban Missile Crisis, however there are numerous other examples with varying degrees of evidence available to help us to understand the decision making process. These could include decision making by coaches & captains during a sporting competition (for example see Tom Johnson’s book on New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby Team titled ‘Legends in Black’: New Zealand Rugby Greats on Why We Win). Or the decisions of political party leadership during times of stress (for example see Andrew Adonis’ book ‘5 Days in May’ on the formation of the Conservative-Liberal coalition Govt in UK 2005). There are countless other examples.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, and particularly the decision making processes of President Kennedy, and his ExComm Advisers, has been the focus of many studies of social psychological study, and as such gives us strong evidence to build an argument for the question. Students will be able to find a range of resources relating to this RLS in IB DP Psychology books, and other Psych texts. Online you will find resources such as this by Alex Gillespie, and this by Nicholas R. Miller, or this webpage. This is an excellent PsychologyToday article exploring the issue. Essentially, it is argued by many psychologists that a number of psychological group processes were happening during the decision making process in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (and during the decision to Invade the Bay of Pigs), these processes include:

  • Groupthink -the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making.
  • The Risky Shift Phenomenon -The risky shift occurs when a group collectively agrees on a course of action that is more extreme than they would have made if asked individually.
  • Social Identification – The development of self identity through membership of a particular group.
  • Social Categorisation – The development of group identity through the exclusion of membership of other perceived groups.

The claims and counterclaims here could be discussed with reference to the various historical records. This would also allow an exploration of the question in terms of the extent of President Kennedy’s decision making required group verification, and whether the counter-arguments, often put by Bobby Kennedy, in many ways constituted knowledge in themselves, or allowed verification of the decisions made thus constituting those decisions as knowledge. Again, your definition of knowledge will very much determine how you write the answer.

Students should probably only use one, or two, real life situations to exemplify the question. Remember that if you take the approach outlined above the focus should be on the ToK discussion, not on the detail of the real life example. The RLS is only there to help you to explain, and to provide evidence for, the ToK content. It is that ToK content which is key. There are many other ways to structure your answer to this PT, please don’t feel bound by my approach, there is certainly no ‘designated’ nor expected format for this PT. As with all my blog-posts written about essays, this one comes with the big health warning: this is just a set of ideas about how to go about answering this essay title. It is not ‘the only’ answer, nor necessarily ‘the best’ answer. It is merely designed as a starting point for discussions between teachers and students in our ToK community.

For any student aiming for a particularly high score I would strongly recommend reading texts by Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago : either “Blindness” , or, “Seeing” are the best books to look at, they really give a great insight into the role of the group.

If you have ideas, or alternative approaches to this question, please post them below.

Enjoy your ToK journey !



24 thoughts on “3. “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss.

  1. Hi Daniel. An IB student taking the Nov 2015 session here. When will you provide analysations for the 3 other questions? Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Kenan, I will add the analysis of each essay as I complete them. They take me about a week each to complete. Essay #4 is very nearly finished. The other 2 will also be up in the next couple of weeks.

      1. Thank you. I have chosen to do this particular question though. And I must say, this has helped me a lot. Thank you, Daniel.

  2. Hi There,
    I am an IB student currently in grade 11. I have been assigned this title. I am facing many difficulties, can you help me frame my essay?
    Regards Rahul

    1. Hi Rahul, the post above should give you ideas about structure and approach. If you have specific questions please ask them here, I’m happy to help. Best wishes, Daniel

  3. Hi Daniel,

    Could you please given an example of a RLS for the natural sciences such as bio, chem or phys? Thanks!

    1. Hi, one of the RLS in the article is from the natural sciences. A discussion of the natural sciences in this essay could involve looking at the role of the group in the Hypothetico-Deductive Method.

  4. Hi Daniel. I am planning to do this question for my ToK essay. I am wondering, can I just refer to one RLS? Because in your post you mentioned 3 RLS. I am thinking about discussing it in just on AOK (Natural Sciences) is that acceptable?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Yvette, one RLS is absolutely fine as long as it allows you to develop a range of KQ’s & KC’s. Any one RLS will, inevitably, have within it a range of other RLS.

  5. Hi Daniel,
    I was not sure of this question, since it can be pretty triky, however after reading this I am taking the challenge. Could you suggest any RLS example in PSYCHOLOGY that could be useful? Thank you

    1. Psychology has many examples to use – consider any of the research on conformity, obedience, group dynamics, etc. The issue with using a psychology RLS will be defining knowledge.

    1. The RLS that you should draw on should be RLS which are meaningful for you. If there are no RLS which resonate with you from the Arts or Natural Sciences I would recommend choosing different AoKs. If you use RLS which have significance for you it will be easier to write your essay, and the KQ’s will be easier to explore.

  6. Dear Daniel.
    For this prescribed title, would it be okay to agree with it in one area of knowledge (natural sciences) but disagree with it in another area of knowledge (history)?
    If its okay :D, for natural sciences could my claim be what the prescribed title says and my counter-claim be against it? Then, for history, could my claim be that “without group to verify it, knowledge in history can be possible” while my counter-claim be “without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible”. It’s kinda flipped around since the views of my claim and counter-claim are different for the different AOKS and I dont know if that works for a good Tok Essay. What structure would you recommend for this???? Do you have any general advice on this? Thank you very much!

    1. It would be absolutely fine to explore the various sides of the PT using examples drawn from different AoK’s so long as the emphasis is on the PT rather than the AoK’s. The emphasis needs to be on the nature of knowledge production rather than solely on knowledge.

  7. Hi Daniel, as a Real live situation could I give as a example a personal experience? For example in arts, I have two teachers, one of them told me that my painting was ok and the other one gave me a idea to change it. I think it is linked with the title but i’m not sure if including something personal would be ok.. what do you think?

    1. Hi Daniela, using a real life situation is an important part of the ToK essay, and is strongly encouraged. So definitely include your RLS. In the situation given you would need to discuss how knowledge varies according to the ‘group’ which is constructing it – ie either of your teachers.

  8. Hey Daniel. I have my arguments sorted out but I am not too sure how to structure it. Is there a particular method? In the introduction, do we near to clearly answer the PT, or are we supposed to put it in indirectly? Also, is the real life situation supposed to be in the form of a counter argument? Thanks in advance 🙂

    1. Structure is absolutely crucial, I would recommend that you work on the structure with your ToK teacher. The introduction should show how you have extrapolated your first Knowledge Question from your first RLS. The RLS could be used as counterargument, there is no limit on the number of RLS which you draw upon, as such RLS could be used as both argument and counter-arguments.

  9. Hello I just have trouble forming the conclusion of this essay, I don’t know what to say in it, should it be like a summary?

    1. Hi, first up congratulations on nearly finishing the essay. In the conclusion you need to to state to what extent you agree with the essay title, your degree of agreement should draw upon the arguments (knowledge claims) that you have used within your essay.

      1. In the conclusion you need to to state to what extent you agree with the essay title, your degree of agreement should draw upon the arguments (knowledge claims) that you have used within your essay.

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