by Richard van de Lagemaat
Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma
Richard van de Lagemaat 978 0 521542 98 2 www.cambridge.org/uk/education/international/ib/tok/ For information on the author’s education consultancy service: www.inthinking.co.uk For information on the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme: www.ibo.org/diploma/
© Cambridge University Press 2007
Writing a TOK essay
‘Most people would rather die than think; in fact they do so.’ BERTRAND RUSSELL, 1872–1970 ‘You aren’t going to have good ideas, unless you have lots of ideas and some principle of selection.’ LINUS PAULING, 1901–1994 ‘It is dangerous to read about a subject before we have thought about it ourselves . . . When we read, another person thinks for us; we merely repeat his mental process.’ ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER, 1788–1860 ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ WILLIAM FAULKNER, 1897–1962 ‘What is written without pain is read without pleasure.’ SAMUEL JOHNSON,1709–1784 ‘Just as the sentence contains one idea in all its fullness, so the paragraph should embrace a distinct episode; and as sentences should follow one another in harmonious sequence, so paragraphs must ﬁt into one another like the automatic couplings of railway carriages.’ SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1874–1965 ‘Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.’ MATTHEW ARNOLD, 1822–1888 ‘Deep people strive for clarity; those who wish to appear deep strive for obscurity.’ FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, 1844–1900 ‘Thoughts obey the law of gravity to this extent, that they travel much more easily from head down to paper than they do from paper up to head, so that for the latter journey they require all the assistance we can give them.’ ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER, 1788–1860 ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ ALBERT EINSTEIN, 1879–1955 ‘Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better.’ BLAISE PASCAL, 1623–1662
© Cambridge University Press 2007
The word ‘essay’ comes from the French verb essayer meaning ‘to try’ or ‘to attempt’. (A French philosopher called Michel de Montaigne, who lived from 1533 to 1592, was the ﬁrst person to use the word in its modern sense.) The origin of the word is of more than passing interest. Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is concerned with questions that do not have deﬁnite answers. This does not make such questions redundant. On the contrary, many of the most important questions in life do not have deﬁnite answers. When writing a TOK essay, it is best to think not so much in terms of answering a question as of illuminating a problem. That is what you are trying to do. A certain amount of humility is in order here. You are unlikely to come up with the deﬁnitive solution to the problem! To illuminate a problem is to do such things as: explain what the problem is and why it matters; clarify the meaning of key words; consider different ways of thinking about the problem; construct arguments and counter-arguments; give examples; assess supporting evidence; explore implications; make relevant connections; and uncover hidden assumptions. Since it deals with open-ended questions, an essay is essentially personal in nature. Other people may have come this way before, and you can doubtless learn a great deal from their explorations. But your essay should be more than a summary of other people’s opinions or a loose paraphrase of some textbook or other. You need to have the courage – at least occasionally – to strike out on your own; for this is your attempt to illuminate the problem.
The IB requirement
You have to choose one essay from a list of ten ‘prescribed titles’ which are set by the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization). These essays are usually comparative in nature: you are expected...