We are lucky to be here

As smart apes, but apes nevertheless, we are the product of contingent interacting historic and biological events.  We are finite because our lifetimes have a beginning, a middle and an end. We are socially, linguistically and culturally embedded. All this entails having much to learn. Our knowledge acquisition is both personal and shared. Our finitude, particularity and biological heritage ensure that we are both capable and fallible, metaphorically, “between beasts and angels!”

William Blake (1795) Newton. Monoprint with ink and watercolor. Tate Gallery, London.

William Blake (1795) Newton. Monoprint with ink and watercolor. Tate Gallery, London.


Once understood and appropriated by students the capability/fallibility dualism is a powerful notion that can be used in various TOK contexts. Appreciating the positive aspects of knowing is a great example. A skeptical mindset, with regard to limitations and bias, is a central part of the TOK critical thinking toolkit. But focusing almost entirely on the weaknesses and fallibility of knowledge claims loses sight of our capability. There are many positive aspects of knowledge and there is tremendous pleasure in finding things out. The accumulated edifice of shared human ideas—loosely, the Areas of Knowledge—merits nothing less than awe and astonishment.


Another benefit of appropriating the tension between capability and fallibility is that counterclaims are always looming. A student addressing a straightforward knowledge question like, “if we can be fooled by optical illusions is it reasonable to be skeptical about all sense data?” might begin (in the fallibility domain) by describing a compelling optical illusion and conceding the need for caution. The student might also point to the limiting factor that our senses respond only to stimuli falling within a predetermined range. The student might counter (switching to the capability domain) with the fact that our senses are not always fallible and could provide an array of examples of how specific senses are highly successful as portals to a lifetime of vivid experience.

Seen in this light, default recognition of capability and fallibility inherent in all flavors of Personal and Shared Knowledge will generate a cascade of counter arguments and will ensure a lively "to and fro" that characterizes TOK exploration at its most sophisticated level.

In the spirit of open-ended inquiry, the TOK student might conclude the to and fro of argument and counterargument―this time―by formulating a related but more nuanced, emergent Knowledge Question worthy of deeper exploration.