Precepts to use in everyday life

1. Think for yourself, 2. Be yourself, 3. Speak up, 4. Feel free to agree and disagree, 5. Be honest with yourself and others, 6. Be open-minded, 7. Avoid being judgmental and 8. Question everything - even your own thinking.

TOK Essay Titles Nov 2020

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


The Arts and Language

Here's an anecdote from the Nineteenth Century in France involving the lexicographer Emile Littré who created the Dictionnaire de la langue française which became so well-used it subsequently took his name, 'Le Littré'. The story is a fine example of how you should use words precisely and think about what they mean and is one which Professors of linguistics are delighted to recount to first year Undergraduates in France.

So here's the story: Littré spent much of his working life either studying words or having a good time with women, in spite of the fact that he was married. One day, when his wife told him that she was off shopping to prepare for the evening repast, our lexicographer thought that it was going to be a lucky day: he could spend the morning entertaining the maid, while the afternoon could be taken up with study and writing.

So the well-intentioned Mrs. Littré leaves for the market, while Monsieur grapples with the servant in the conjugal bed. Half way down the road, Madame suddenly realises that she has left her purse at home. You can see where this is going...When Madame returns to the apartment and finds her husband in flagrante in the arms of the serving girl, she exclaims: 'Monsieur Littré! I am surprised at your shameful behaviour.'

The indiscreet connoisseur of words replies with cool professionalism: 'No Madame. It is we who are surprised; you, on the other hand, are astonished!'

The French word for 'surprised' not only looks the same as the English word, 'surprise', but means very much the same thing. The word derives from the old French 'surprendre' which itself is related to the Latin 'superprehendre' meaning 'seize', giving the overall sense of 'being taken or seized by the unexpected'.

The French word for 'astonished', 'étonné' derives from the old French 'estoner' which in turn came from the Latin word 'extonare' which means 'struck by thunder'.
So as you see, the inimitable Professor of Linguistics might have been extremely fussy about his distinctions, but he certainly knew how to express the fine line between emotions.

So what's the point?

1. CHECK the meaningof the words you use - especially if you're not sure.

2. CHECK the meaning of the words you think you know very well - you might be surprised!

Notes on Structure and Layout: Footnotes

We know that we have already placed a link to the TOK website on this topic, but it does no harm to repeat ourselves, especially as you are embarking on your Extended Essays. Writing footnotes is a minefield of punctuation and phrasing and can be extremely difficult to grapple with.

Spend some time thinking about WHY we use footnotes and HOW we can make the footnotes in our essay an efficient and integral part of writing.

REMEMBER: clear footnotes reflect the clarity of your mind and are also a preventative to plagiarism.

The first impressions you make in your essays are always the most important - an examiner worth his salt will always check first the quality of your footnotes and Bibliography (along with the introduction and conclusion) and will be able to tell the quality of the work at hand.

Go to:

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Students are still making major errors in presenting their bibliography. You MUST separate a 'Bibliography' from 'Websites' - use separate headings. There are two resources you can use to help you with the formal layout of your references courtesy of Mme. Szabries:

1) IBTOKSPOT : Bibliography

2) International Standard for Bibliographic Entries : ISO 690

You are losing up to 6 or 7 marks, because you don't cite your sources clearly - so get used to using the above resources.

See also Resource 1 for how to use FOOTNOTES to reference quotations and factual material that you use directly in your essay.

Notes on Structure and Layout: The Bibliography

To those of you in Year 13 who are finalising a TOK essay or those of you in Year 12 who are embarking on your third and final essay, here are some formalities that you MUST follow:

1. Read and appropriately reference at least TWO books/articles (from journals/specialist magazines or newspapers) written in hard print!

2. Create a list of references at the end of the essay (on a separate sheet) citing all the sources you have consulted in the preparation for writing your essay. Cite the books/articles in a section entitled 'Bibliography' and the websites under in a section labelled 'Websites'.

3. The basic formula for referencing is as follows - courtesy of Mme. Szabries who was actually at the conference at the Sorbonne, Paris when the standard conventions for bibliographic referencing were reviewed and then reformulated in a book by M. le Professeur Yves Chevrel: L'Etudiant chercheur en littérature! Please remember to use the correct punctuation!:


AUTHOR'S SURNAME [in capitals], Author's first name or initials, Title of book [in italics], Place of publication, Publisher, Series or Collection [if known], Date of publication of edition [original date in brackets, if relevant], last numbered page [i.e. 347 p.] [End with a full stop.]


AUTHOR'S SURNAME [in capitals], Author's first name or initials, "Title of article" [in double inverted commas - not italics!], in [in italics], Journal/Magazine/Newspaper Title [in italics], Volume, Number, Place of publication, Publisher's name, Date of publication, first and last numbered pages [i.e. pp. 43-56.] [End with a full stop.]


AUTHOR'S SURNAME [if relevant], Author's first name or initials [if relevant], "Title of article" [in double inverted commas], Website Page Name [in italics - e.g. if it's an on-line journal/magazine/newspaper], Website address [compulsory], (Date page was accessed - Month, year - in round brackets). [End with a full stop.]

For a more visual expression of these formalities (and concrete examples), Mme. Szabries has put together a document on the TOK website: follow the 'TOK Essay' link in the 'Table of Contents' or click this link:

Oh yes! Remember that the lists in the Bibliography and Websites sections must be in CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER according to the AUTHOR'S SURNAME.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


History/Human Sciences

It is now just over 40 years ago that Enoch Powell gave his infamous 'rivers of blood' speech in which he made certain knowledge claims about what would happen if the Conservative government did not tightened up U.K.'s immigration policy . One such claim was a projected figure for the number of Commonwealth immigrants that would be living in the UK in the year 2000: " must be in the region of 5-7 million." The census figures for 2001 show the figure to be 4 and a half million. Coincidence? Rationally justified? Brilliant guesswork?

In his new book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (the link gives a review in the Guardian), the writer Chris Caldwell reflects on the nature of immigration in Europe over the last century. We heard a BBC Radio Five Live interview with Caldwell, in which he claims to have evidence to support the idea that when two cultures come together, like the western European and Islamic, the one that has no strict principles or set moral rules which all its citizens follow (the Western culture) usually changes in the face of the culture that sets a code of behaviour for all its people. In short, the argument seems to be that the European cultures have been too insecure in their moral, political and social values and this has made the assimilation of immigrants increasingly difficult over the years.

Is this change necessarily a bad thing? Should we actively encourage the change? How do we overcome our cultural insecurities? What is the status of 'Britishness'? Is their a coherent and stable entity that can be called the 'British national identity' or European identity?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Notes on Structure and Layout: Style

Scanning through some of the articles on Stephen Law's website (a grand forum for discussion and argument), we came across a review Mr. Law wrote on a book by a popular philosopher, Alain de Botton: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Law ends by comparing the writing of de Botton and another writer, Peter Singer, in an attempt to explain what he is looking for in a truly engaging philosophical book. His criteria seem to us to sum up what we are looking for in a truly engaging (and ultimately high achieving) TOK essay or presentation. Here we list the criteria, but go and read the review for yourselves - click here:

1. "Read the book, and then ask yourself: what is the central argument of this book? What are its conclusions?"

2. "Above all ask yourself: what has been clearly and unambiguously stated here with which someone might conceivably disagree?"

3. "Singer too writes beautifully, but his is the style of someone who doesn’t want his style noticed. It’s deliberately transparent: you look right through it, at first noticing just the ideas, only later registering the beautifully precise and clear way they have been articulated (Dawkins too has this gift)."

4. "...Singer also dares to express [sic] a controversial point of view."

5. "Read Singer and you have little choice but to engage your brain. He pokes you in the ribs with his arguments, challenging you to find the flaws. We know exactly what he thinks and exactly why he thinks it. He stings like a Socratic gad-fly – pricking our consciences, making us feel uncomfortable."

Of course, it takes many years of practise and conscientious study to acquire all these characteristics of style. You can, nevertheless, start your apprenticeship right here with your TOK work!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009



Just a week ago, the government published the UK's 'least wanted' list which includes names of people who have been barred from these shores. How do we know who to ban? The criteria for deciding appear to be whether these people promote 'hatred', 'extremism', 'violence' and 'serious criminal activity'. According to an article published on the BBC website, since 2005, the government has had the legal right to ban anyone who they believe will propound their negativity in the UK.

What do you think? Where do we stop? Should we ban asylum seekers? What should we do with our own citizens who perpetrate their negative beliefs? Ship them off somewhere like our ancestors did? Perhaps they should regularly publish a list of MPs expense accounts...

The point is: to what extent is the assertion of the so-called 'right to know' simply an expression of paranoia? How far is it really an attempt to unveil corruption and evil at the root of people's beliefs and actions? Shouldn't we all be entitled to a private life?

Friday, May 8, 2009



We reproduce an article from Scientific American (February 19, 2009), courtesy of Andy Fletcher (remember his seminar on Life, the Universe and Everything?). The article explores the relationship between Mathematics and knowledge through time focussing especially on the idea of the limits of knowledge for the mere mortals of the human race...

'Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know it All'

A mathematical theory places limits on how much a physical entity can know about the past, present or future

By Graham P. Collins

Deep in the deluge of knowledge that poured forth from science in the 20th century were found ironclad limits on what we can know. Werner Heisenberg discovered that improved precision regarding, say, an object’s position inevitably degraded the level of certainty of its momentum. Kurt Gödel showed that within any formal mathematical system advanced enough to be useful, it is impossible to use the system to prove every true statement that it contains. And Alan Turing demonstrated that one cannot, in general, determine if a computer algorithm is going to halt.
David H. Wolpert, a physics-trained computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, has chimed in with his version of a knowledge limit. Because of it, he concludes, the universe lies beyond the grasp of any intellect, no matter how powerful, that could exist within the universe. Specifically, during the past two years, he has been refining a proof that no matter what laws of physics govern a universe, there are inevitably facts about the universe that its inhabitants cannot learn by experiment or predict with a computation. Philippe M. Binder, a physicist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, suggests that the theory implies researchers seeking unified laws cannot hope for anything better than a “theory of almost everything.”

Wolpert’s work is an effort to create a formal rigorous description of processes such as measuring a quantity, observing a phenomenon, predicting a system’s future state or remembering past information—a description that is general enough to be independent of the laws of physics. He observes that all those processes share a common basic structure: something must be configured (whether it be an experimental apparatus or a computer to run a simulation); a question about the universe must be specified; and an answer (right or wrong) must be supplied. He models that general structure by defining a class of mathematical entities that he calls inference devices.

The inference devices act on a set of possible universes. For instance, our universe, meaning the entire world line of our universe over all time and space, could be a member of the set of all possible such universes permitted by the same rules that govern ours. Nothing needs to be specified about those rules in Wolpert’s analysis. All that matters is that the various possible inference devices supply answers to questions in each universe. In a universe similar to ours, an inference device may involve a set of digital scales that you will stand on at noon tomorrow and the question relate to your mass at that time. People may also be inference devices or parts of one.

Wolpert proves that in any such system of universes, quantities exist that cannot be ascertained by any inference device inside the system. Thus, the “demon” hypothesized by Pierre-Simon Laplace in the early 1800s (give the demon the exact positions and velocities of every particle in the universe, and it will compute the future state of the universe) is stymied if the demon must be a part of the universe.

Researchers have proved results about the incomputability of specific physical systems before. Wolpert points out that his result is far more general, in that it makes virtually no assumptions about the laws of physics and it requires no limits on the computational power of the inference device other than it must exist within the universe in question. In addition, the result applies not only to predictions of a physical system’s future state but also to observations of a present state and examining a record of a past state.

The theorem’s proof, similar to the results of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and Turing’s halting problem, relies on a variant of the liar’s paradox—ask Laplace’s demon to predict the following yes/no fact about the future state of the universe: “Will the universe not be one in which your answer to this question is yes?” For the demon, seeking a true yes/no answer is like trying to determine the truth of “This statement is false.” Knowing the exact current state of the entire universe, knowing all the laws governing the universe and having unlimited computing power is no help to the demon in saying truthfully what its answer will be.
In a sense, however, the existence of such a paradox is not exactly earth-shattering. As Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it: “That your predictions about the universe are fundamentally constrained by you yourself being part of the universe you’re predicting, always seemed pretty obvious to me—and I doubt Laplace himself would say otherwise if we could ask him.” Aaronson does allow, though, that it is “often a useful exercise to spell out all the assumptions behind an idea, recast everything in formal notation and think through the implications in detail,” as Wolpert has done. After all, the devil, or demon, is in the details.

Editor's Note: This story was originally printed with the title "Impossible Inferences"


Natural Sciences and God

Look at this programme summary of a radio documentary entitled, 'God on the Brain'. It explores the relatively new field of 'neurotheology': a study of the hypothesis that we are programmed to believe in God and that the condition known as temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) could unlock the evidence to prove the truth of an individual's claims to know that God exists. If you check the 'Questions and answers' link, you'll also get a bibliography (useful aren't they!) and other web links to follow up your researches. You should especially look at the 2003 BBC Reith Lectures entitled 'The Emerging Mind' by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

TOK Websites

Lancaster School Theory of Knowledge

Lancaster School is in Mexico and has produced an excellent ToK Blog site which is recommended owing to its generous presentation of real life examples relating to the various elements of the course. When you start to write your essay or to prepare your presentation, you should consult this site to find a springboard for your ideas and to orientate your thinking. There are also ideas about how to write an essay and other key information on passing the IB course. Enjoy!