Towards a true Theory of Knowledge

We seem to have an obsession with the truth, which is bordering on the near fetishistic. Every way I turn I see claims of ‘truth’ which at best just distract us on the way to buy a loaf of bread, but at worst see people committing acts of extreme violence against each other. People spend their lives in search of it, many of us believe in different versions of it, some of my ToK students are unable to define it,  songwriters tell me that love is meant to be it, most people believe it’s out there somewhere – yes, this post is a potted guide to that most elusive concepts – the truth.

There are as many definitions of truth as there are writers pondering it. Constructivists will focus upon ways in which knowledge identified as ‘true’ has been constructed, absolutists will argue that universal truths do exist (then fiercely argue over what they are, relativists will say that truth is ever changing, and that such flux makes it near impossible to define.


It is much more useful to look at ‘truth’ in terms of objectivity, which immediately brings into focus the process of knowledge production. Students who are interested in this area could explore some of the debates between an empiricist approach and the more rationalist approaches found in the various knowledge frameworks of the Areas of Knowledge. In this post I will focus more on some of the recent philosophical approaches to an objective Theory of Knowledge – and try to apply this to some RLS as I go along.

At the outset the very idea of an objective truth seems antithetical to the very purpose and structure of ToK as structured by the IB. Our ToK has at it’s centre a model of Personal and Shared knowledge (with an interesting area of intersection) – and thus, the idea of a Knower’s Perspective. If we are to accept that subjectivity is a product of individuality then the Knower’s Perspective negates the idea of a single, external, unified truth. It brings ‘truth’ to the individual knower, and their personal knowledge. (ToK students please take note of this when writing about History as an AoK, or historical process – if you want to argue that there is a single historical truth you need to establish the idea of an external, unified truth). However, there is a philosophical line which has developed in this context.

I have steered clear of the word ‘bias’ in this post as bias can be a very problematic term in ToK. Bias is sometimes characterised as a negative, however all points of view are biased. As such the term is not particularly helpful when exploring objective truths.

In 1913 Bertrand Russell published a book titled Problems of Philosophy in which he discussed a  “Theory of Knowledge”, at least 40 years before the IB was conceived.  In this book he argues that there is a single, external truth, and that the purpose of philosophy is to explain how we discover that truth.

RLS & ToK application.

  • History as an AoK is often understood as ‘discovering’ a real truth, people say “what were the causes of..,” or “what actually happened…,”
  • Religious Knowledge Systems claim unitary, external, truths.
  • in Natural Sciences, the discipline of Biology, the use of fMRI is often used in such a way that we suggest that the findings are showing a neurological ‘truth’.

Russell fully understood the problems of subjectivity brought about by experience (ToK application: WoK Sensory Perception), and therefore he brings the process of doubt to the centre of his philosophy. He argues that whilst it is impossible to experience the external reality beyond the senses that does not negate it’s existence. His (very clever) conclusion is that whilst we may not know our errors we equally do not know what we are right about, or more specifically how to go about discovering those things which are correct.

Russell’s work was further developed by Karl Popper, particularly on his work regarding falsification. Popper was interested in epistemology in the Natural Sciences, and was appreciative of the problems that doubt (as identified by Russell) brings to the establishment of objective external realities.  Popper proposed that for a hypothesis to be established as ‘real’ or a ‘fact’ it needs to be disproved (very much along the lines of Kant’s Black Swans).

ToK Applications:

  • The Knowledge Frameworks of AoKs Natural Sciences and Maths are developed from the hypothetico deductive method, and are therefore open to falsification, as such they can qualify as objective knowledge according to Poppers theory.
  • The Human Sciences is only partially open to falsification, ethnomethodological research methods such as case studies are inherently subjective. – Popper called these Pseudo-Sciences.
  • Some AoK’s seek self confirming knowledge (confirmation bias) – this could be easily argued for Religious Knowledge Systems etc.

Experimental & Human Sciences and Objectivity.

We could come at the problem of Objectivity (or truth) using other AoKs, for example the Experimental & Human Sciences. A couple of days ago some of my ToK students discussed the idea that the closest that we could get to identifying objective human thoughts was through the use of an fMRI scanner. I argued that whilst an fMRI scanner may give us a visual representation of neurological processes it doesn’t actually help us understand the objectivity of those processes. However, my student’s view very much represents the trend in thinking, whilst I’m certainly in the minority viewpoint. fMRI is increasingly being used to identify apparent ‘truths’, and to peel away the artifice of human presentation. This obviously leads us to a set of possible ethical concerns, and the rise of a new area of ethics termed ‘Neuroethics’ – find out more at this excellent site.

However, maybe it is in that very area of ‘human artifice’ that we construct objectivity, which leads us neatly to Psychology (within the Human Sciences). Cognitive Psychologists studying sensory perception have been conveniently categorised into the binary labels of Constructivists (e.g. see Richard Gregory’s work) or Nativists (e.g. see James Gibson’s work). Nativists understand the development of sensory perceptual systems as a response to evolutionary demands of the environment. As such they argue a ‘bottom up’ approach – that is that human sensory systems must be accurate as they are response to survival threats. If they were not accurate they would have not afforded us with advantages within our habitat, and therefore would not have been selected. In terms of human sciences we could argue that there exists a de-facto objectivity, the closest that we are likely to get given the limitations of our neurological system.

This is just a brief introduction into the problems of establishing objectivity in knowledge. Hopefully from this starting point students are able to develop knowledge questions pertaining to objectivity in the various Areas of Knowledge, and problems of objectivity when using the various Ways of Knowing. The concept of objectivity, and it’s relative importance, is deeply rooted in the Knowledge Framework of each AoK, particularly in the underlying assumptions of the AoK. I would encourage students who are considering problems of objectivity to look at the Knowledge Frameworks in the ToK Guide, paying particular attention to the Methodology section, and the Underlying Assumptions section.

Enjoy your pursuit of truth !



Bertrand Russell’s Philosophy, David Haines.

Popper, Karl . R. Science as falsification:

The problem of objectivity.

Locke’s theory of knowledge

Popper’s Theory of Objective Knowledge


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