The 6 fundamental debates of ToK.


Every knower will live with a set of internal debates about their own personal knowledge, for example we may ask ourselves whether we have correctly interpreted another person’s behaviour,  or whether our memory of a specific event is accurate, or why we know one thing to be right but feel the opposite etc – the list is endless. This post is intended to devise a list of internal knowledge debates for ToK – these are the key debates which I think underpin the whole subject, and which can be applied to most aspects of life. Further, these debates underpin many of the Presentation and Essay titles that ToK students undertake. To identify them, and then to explore them, will show a development of your understanding of the KQ.

Please feel free to reject these debates, or add your own in the comments box below.

The debates are in no particular order, just click on the one which interests you to be taken to my thoughts on that debate, or scroll down to read through them all.

  1. Homo Rationalus vs Homo Ilogicus
  2. Qualitative vs Quantitative Approaches
  3. Knowledge vs Experience
  4. Past Patterns vs Future Actions
  5. Deontological Ethics vs Consequentialism
  6. Altruism vs Self Interest

Homo Rationalus vs Homo Ilogicus

Homo Rationalus vs Homo Ilogicus

This debate is about the extent to which humans are able to make rational independent decisions, or are we moulded by external forces, and constrained by the limits of our neuro-architecture ? This debate is articulated in philosophy in the development of Existentialism in response to Essentialism, Universalism and Fatalism of earlier times. It also includes the Free Will vs Determinism debate.

In terms of ToK this debate comes up in all AoKs & WoKs which we consider in the course, I will briefly illustrate it’s relevance to a few examples:

When considering Religious Knowledge Systems AoK, and / or, Faith as a WoK, we often discuss whether we can apply another WoK to corroborate the determinist nature of Religious Knowledge & Faith.

When discussing knowledge gained from Human Sciences AoK we often look at whether true objectivity can be achieved as the instruments of measurement and the objects of study are one and the same (humans). Therefore, the question arises whether we can surpass any pre-determined, or perceived, external influencer in order to analyse the world objectively.

In Mathematics AoK we may look at how more accurate modelling can be developed which can take account of the apparently random event. As such we are questioning whether there are underlying processes of causation, or whether events are unique. The latter would suggest a more autonomous existentialism whilst the former would suggest a more pre-determined existence.

Qualitative vs Quantitative Approaches

Qualitative vs Quantitative

This debate is best understood by the question:

is the best knowledge indicated by the quality of the experience or by the number of people who share the experience ?

As such, this question includes a number of sub-debates, including:

  • Subjectivity vs Objectivity.
  • Idiography vs Nomotheticism.
  • Phenomenology vs Positivism.

This debate is about whether ‘better’ knowledge is acquired by looking in depth at the individual case, or by asking about the experiences of the many. Do we learn more about our world by seeing it in detail through the eyes of one, or seeing it less focussed through the eyes of many ?

In ToK this debate can be seen in the Natural Sciences when apparently unexpected or atypical results are found from experimentation. Do these results, alone, challenge the reliability and validity of earlier results, models and theory ? Do these results alone fundamentally change the previous held theory ?

Obviously, the consequence of atypical findings will vary by example and era, however interesting examples can be drawn from the move from Geocentrism to Heliocentrism, the discovery of Penicillin, the move from Newtonian theory of gravity to a more general theory of relativity, etc. In these cases an apparently atypical result, which could not be seen as more objective than previous results, was eventually accepted as the best theory / knowledge available.

When discussing the nature of Faith as a WoK, and organised Faith in Religious Knowledge Systems we often consider the nature of truth – for example can personal knowledge be considered a truth or does it need to be verified by others ?

Knowledge vs Experience.

Knowledge vs Experience

This debate could also be Empiricism vs Rationalism debate

or the debate could be Relativism vs Absolutism debate

This duality seems to underpin many of the ToK examinations of real life situations, of knowledge questions and claims. To clarify for students who are new to ToK I will briefly explain the duality:

The duality concerns what it means to be a knower – Clifford Stoll stated that

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.

As such, we are trying to understand the extent to which knowing requires an active engagement in knowledge acquisition. On the other hand, just experiencing a phenomenon does not necessarily mean that we ‘know’ the knowledge inherent to that experience (for example I have often experienced the Chinese language, but I don’t understand it, I don’t ‘know’ how to speak Chinese).

What does being a knower actually mean ? If it requires attaching a semantic understanding to experiences we run into another problem. Meanings are not universally agreed upon – meaning changes according to time, context, stimuli, interpreter etc etc – If there are multiple interpretations of the meaning of experiences, then we could say that there are multiple ways of being a knower – as such meaning becomes relative (the debate could be seen in terms of relativism vs absolutism).

To take this debate further we could see it in terms of empiricism vs rationalism. Empiricists (such as John Locke) argue that all knowledge comes from the perceptual senses. In terms of our debate this could constitute the ‘experience’ side of our duality. However, on the other hand Rationalists (such as Spinoza) argue that knowledge starts with reason – that we must place perceptual data into preconceived categories in order to make sense of it. The debate is one asking “which comes first ?” knowledge or experience ?

The relevance of the empiricism vs rationalism debate for ToK is that it pits two key WoKs against each other perception vs reason, which in turn clearly maps onto the experience vs knowledge debate.

Past Patterns vs Future Actions.

Past patterns vs Future Actions

This debate can be summed up with the question:

to what extent does the past help us to predict the future ?

This debate often comes up in one form, or another in the essay questions (Prescribed Titles). For example:

May 2014 Prescribed Titles:

  1. “That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.” Consider knowledge issues raised by this statement in two areas of knowledge.
  1. “The historian’s task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast, is looking to change the future.” To what extent is this true in these areas of knowledge?

Nov 2015 Prescribed Titles:

  1. “The main reason knowledge is produced is to solve problems.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  1. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of using models to produce knowledge of the world.
  1. Is explanation a prerequisite for prediction? Explore this question in relation to two areas of knowledge.

All of these titles ask students to consider the relationship between perceived past events and future events. The Past Patterns vs future Actions debate underlies these questions, as such the questions can be explored through this debate.

This debate can be seen through the prism of various AoKs, for example:

  • AoK Maths: Regression Analysis, Probability Testing, Inferential Statistics etc
  • AoK Religious Knowledge Systems: Historical books predict future events
  • AoKs Human & Natural Sciences: Deductive reasoning leads to research to find associative, or causal, relationships

The debate can also be seen through a set of questions:

  1. How do we understand ‘the past’ ? is it a unitary truth or a number of interpretations ?
  2. Are we dealing with a more fatalistic, or existentialist, context ?
  3. Do we believe that objective interpretation happens at a more individual or group based level ?
  4. Are past and future binary concepts, or are they inherent to a  mutually inclusive continuum ?

There are many other questions which could be developed to explore this Past vs Future debate, such questions are even nearly Knowledge Questions !

Deontological Ethics vs Utilitarianism.

Deontology vs Utilitarianism

This debate asks the question:

“can a behaviour be inherently ethical, or is it only the consequences of the behaviour which should ultimately be considered ?”

This question has been encapsulated in ‘the trolley problem’ ethical dilemma:

The basic version of the trolley problem

Summary of 5 versions of trolley problem

Shortened summary of 1 version of trolley problem.

Essentially, not pushing the large man in front of the trolley in order to save the 5 people, because murder is inherently wrong would constitute a Deontological approach.

Whereas pushing the large man in front of the trolley (thus killing him) in order to save the 5 people would be a utilitarian / consequentialist approach.

Arguments for deontology (that actions themselves are ethical / unethical regardless of consequences) include:

  1. The motives for action may be more important than the actions themselves, as such the consequences of action are less important than the intention and the actuality of the action,
  2. That something which is ethical should be inherently moral, or good within itself without external measure, or qualification.
  3. Moral absolutism is the idea that some actions are immoral regardless of intention.

Arguments for Utilitarianism (or consequentialism) include:

  1. The importance of happiness to humans.
  2. Maximising utility (happiness, pleasure, wealth or health) for the maximum number of people.
  3. The public good is generally seen to be more important than individual / private good.
  4. The ends / consequences of actions are more important the means, or actions themselves.

This debate is found underlying many ToK Presentations, and some essay questions. An example presentation:

Real Life Situation: To what extent can the use of waterboarding of suspected terrorists be justified in terms of the potential aversion of harm ?

The knowledge questions arising from this KQ could be:

How can the potential harm of actions be measured in comparison to the potential benefits of the same actions outcomes ?

Can we develop processes for identifying universal harms and universal goods ?

and finally..,

Are you a Deontologist or a Utilitarian ? Take the test here.

Self Interest vs Altruism

Self Interest vs Altruism

The debate is between those who think that human thought and behaviour is ultimately self interested, and those who see humans as being essentially cooperative altruistic individuals.

This is sometimes (inaccurately) termed the Hobbes vs Rogers debate.

Hobbes: “ the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rogers: When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.

This debate is key to our understanding of knowledge in all Group 3 subjects

The Self Interest side of this debate holds that most human behaviour and thought is designed to further the interests of the individual, and that underlying all actions is a motive for the protection of those interests. These principles can be found underpinning the theories of laissez faire economics, evolutionary psychology, and consumption doctrines. The principles can be exemplified in the studies of individualism, and the apparent increasing atomisation of some societies.

The contrasting Altruism side of this debate starts from the notion that humans are essentially altruistic in nature, that we start with a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Proponents of this side of the debate argue that humans, as a collectivist group based species, will tend to care for each other, even if this causes a degree of personal cost. However, when social pressures such as normative influence, or status anxiety, influence behaviour we see a decrement in altruistic behaviour.

There are innumerable psychological research studies into the debate between self interest and altruism, a little online searching will turn these up.

This debate links to many of the themes and questions which come up in ToK, particularly in popular themes for Presentations. A few examples:

RLS: How can we establish whether a social welfare system discourages individual entrepreneurship ?

KQ: Is it possible to establish a causal link between social policy and human behaviour ?


RLS: Did the US ‘War on Terror’ command the popular support of the US public in 2003 ?

KQ: To what extent does personal knowledge inform individual opinion ?


So, that wraps up my list of the 6 Fundamental Debates of ToK. You may disagree with these debates as being those most salient to ToK – I hope that you do, and offer alternatives in the comments box below. In all probability I’ll have changed my mind about these 6 debates a week from now !

If you are looking for some light relief this great article analyses the fundamental debate of Professor Xavier vs Magneto in The X Men !

Happy ToK-ing,



4 thoughts on “The 6 fundamental debates of ToK.

  1. I wonder if this list over-emphasizes debates that fit under the heading “psychology” or “human sciences” rather than “knowledge itself.” What about debates that focus on the value of knowledge, and whether the process of creating it or the product of that creation holds more value? Or debates about the applications and limits of knowledge?

    I realize that humans deserve a central place as objects of TOK study. We are the ones doing the knowing, after all. The list just struck me as falling short of clearing the bar I set for my students when I ask them to find issues that transcend a single AOK.

    1. Hi Gary,

      many thanks for your insightful and thoughtful comment. This ‘Fundamental Debates’ post was written about 18 months ago, and my thoughts on ToK have certainly moved on since then. I agree that the Altruism vs Self Interest, and maybe the deontology debates are far too focussed on Psychology. I may amend the post if I get time. Thanks for reading and commenting,

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