Theory of Knowledge : The TOK Essay
The TOK Essay is a 1200-1600 word essay which must be sumbitted by each IB Diploma candidate for external assessment. The topics are prescribed each year by the IBO, and students must respond to the question exactly as stated by the IBO without modifying it in any way. You may find the prescribed topics for your year in the Misc. Resources section. Ten Tips on Writing a Good Theory of Knowledge Essay
by Nicholas Alchin (http://uwcac.org.uk/acad/thok/tentips_e_1.htm)
- Familiarise yourself with the Assessment Criteria : notice, for example, that
i. your examples should be varied and culturally diverse,
Do not get bogged down in definitions. While it is important to know what you are talking about, you could waste a whole essay in trying to, say, define 'truth'. Also, dictionary definitions are not always helpful - if a dictionary says that "reality is that which is real" then what does this tell you?
ii. you will lose marks if you do not properly cite any sources you use,
iii. you need a clear introduction and conclusion.
Make distinctions between different Areas of Knowledge and different Ways of Knowing. You should avoid making claims that apply to all aspects of knowledge - because different Areas of Knowledge or Ways of Knowing 'work' differently, and what is true for example maths is unlikely to be quite right for example biology.
Do not make grandiose but rather meaningless claims. The best (or worst) one I have seen was something like " Since the dawn of the universe, truth has haunted mankind ". The same sentiment (if I understand it correctly, which I may not), would be much better put as " Humans are a curious species, always seeking the truth " (which may still be an exaggeration).
In your introduction spend a few lines explaining the question , and clarifying how you are going to interpret it. You may want to offer a position that you know is wrong, and explain why it is wrong, perhaps developing it into a better one. For example, one essay title was based on a quote from C.S. Lewis: "What I tell you three times is true". A possible Introduction might be:
"Lewis' quote seems, at first sight, to be ridiculous. If I tell you three times that I am an Alien, or that 1 + 1 = 5, you are unlikely to believe me. Mere repetition is not enough. However, if I ask you how you know that Canberra is the capital of Australia, it may well be that you know it simply because you heard it several times. In other words in this case, repetition is enough. So perhaps there is some merit in the claim, depending on the particular Area of Knowledge in question."
In your introduction try to provide some 'signposts' that indicate what you will be trying to do in your essay. It is much easier to follow an argument when you have a vague idea where it is headed, but you should not spell out the whole thing. Following on from the example in 5 above, the next sentence might be:
"In this essay I shall attempt to see under what circumstances repetition becomes convincing, and by looking at the Natural Sciences and empirical knowledge in general, I hope to show that Lewis is absolutely right in certain Areas of Knowledge, and completely wrong in others."
Use your own examples to make your points. These can be taken from your IB subjects, your everyday life, newspapers and so no. Try not to use rather tired examples of say, the flat earth as an example of an error that everyone believed, or Hitler as an immoral person. Also the best essays do not spend a great deal of space describing examples, but use them often almost in passing to make an analytical point which can be developed.
Remember that your essay is an extended argument – not a collection of several loosely related points. Your essay should move from point to point while always extending the argument and clarifying the nature of your answer. Try to develop a narrative or theme that will link paragraphs and points together smoothly. This may well not be a simple matter and is likely to require a great deal of thought, but it does mean that you can make the essay your own. Find your own theme and address the issues in a manner that interests you and means something to you.
Try to develop an abstract as you write your essay. This is really to help you with point 8. An abstract is a one-paragraph summary of your argument - and if you cannot explain your argument briefly then the reader will have no chance of understanding it. The abstract should not be included when you have finished the essay, but the act of writing it should help retain clarity over what it is that you are trying to do. It is very easy to get lost in TOK essays; the abstract is a way of sticking to the argument that you want to make.
- In your conclusion try to summarise (very briefly – one or two sentences) what you have said, and try to end with a forward-looking view. This might be an explanation of exactly why you were unable to answer the question, or what you would need to know in order to answer the question. Do not just reiterate your arguments. The final paragraph should 'feel' like a conclusion and not leave the reader hanging in mid-air:
"It seems then, that the nature of our senses implies that we will never have access to the 'real world' (though as we have seen, 'real world' is a highly problematic phrase). Some people may feel this is a great disappointment, while others may not care, but it is certainly humbling to note that even in this advanced age, for all our scientific expertise and high-tech machines, we will never know reality."
Given that several of the Problems of Knowledge that you identify may apply to the essay you are writing, you may wish to acknowledge the irony of taking up a position at all!