In questioning some of their own student knowledge claims and in the knowledge as justified true belief session it soon emerges that truth is a slippery concept. Absolute certainty has an initial attraction to many beginning TOK students seeking a chimeric foundation; but it soon emerges that the word “truth” can be used in various ways and in differing contexts.

We have already stressed that TOK is not text-based philosophy. It is much more about our Shared Knowledge—what the practitioners in the various Areas of Knowledge actually do, than it is about metaphysics and eternal questions. For example History is what historians actually do. It is not every last detail of what actually happened. Naturally, academic historians aim for truth in interpreting the traces of a past long gone; but they are realistic and fully aware of the inherent limitations of their discipline.

As embodied, fallible, human knowers we will nearly always be at some distance from "what is actually the case" or "things as they are in themselves." As the course progresses TOK students will embrace this constraint. Not being able to attain it, does not mean that TOK students should shy away from understanding some of various way the word truth is used. Some facility with the three most famous iterations will be very useful for analyzing TOK Knowledge Questions.


We can hold that something is true if it:

  • corresponds to the facts

  • is part of a coherent system

  • works in practice


Students should be divided into random threes. After considering the lofty topic of truth there is no harm in lightening things up with an light-hearted ice-breaker to achieve this. Have students line up left to right, chronologically, in silence according to their birthday and year, using only hand gestures and raising fingers for numbers! When the chaos settles, starting from the left, nominate the first second and third students as "Facilitator," "Scribe" and "Spokesperson," respectively. Do the same for each triplet. If you are left with the asymmetry of a group of four; so be it.    

Next provide a pdf. of a selection from the actual student knowledge claims generated during the introductory Generating student Knowledge Claims unit. In a strictly timed 10 minutes window ask students to assess the truth of each claim in the light of the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories of truth. The scribe should use abbreviations for the theories, checks and annotations to capture what the group observe.  Finally, call on the Spokespersons at random to report back to the whole class; unleashing public discussion. Long before momentum fades, enliven the conversation further with the following Knowledge Questions:

  • Which, if any, of the Areas of Knowledge can claim absolute certainty?

  • Are there aspects of the human experience, not encompassed by the Areas of Knowledge, where claims of absolute certainty can be found?

  • To what extent do various manifestations of religious faith around the world entail certainty?

In responding to these questions a dichotomy should emerge between analytical knowledge (mostly math and deductive logic) and synthetic knowledge (just about everything else). The price paid for the certainty inherent in logic and mathematics is the disjoint between their self-contained, abstract worlds and the inherent uncertainty and messiness of the real world. On the abstract plain of logical syllogism and pure mathematics, we find certain truth that refers only to itself. 

These ideas will be pursued in greater depth later in the course, especially in Pure mathematics: invented or discovered? and This Statement is False. Ideal gas law compared to Euler’s relation also adds an intriguing dimension. I recommend that Induction and deduction be tackled next. This unit will further enhance the students' analytical toolkit and integrates nicely with Is there a scientific method? 


Before closing the class activity, confirm, but also hone and deepen, student understanding the following Knowledge Question:

  • If all literature is a lie (it is fiction after all) to what extent can it convey truth?

This notion is pursued in some depth later in the course in in Picasso's lie in The Arts as an Area of Knowledge. For some intriguing, non-Western perspectives on truth; allow students to respond freely to the Zen quote and the extract from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred Hindu texts. The default generative question: "What is going on here?" will get conversation underway.

Shuzan held out his short staff and said; “If you call this a short staff,* you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”
— Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (1961) Compiled: Reps, Paul (1961) Anchor Books, New York.

*Shuzan's short staff is a Keisaku, or "wakefulness stick"used by Japanese Zen masters to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration when pupils are meditating! 

Arjuna and Krishna

Arjuna and Krishna

…I wish to see Your divine cosmic form, O Supreme Being.
O Lord, if You think it is possible for me to see this, then O Lord of the yogis, show me Your imperishable Self. The Supreme Lord said: O Arjuna, behold My hundreds and thousands of multifarious divine forms of different colors and shapes. …Behold, O Arjuna, many wonders never seen before.

O Arjuna, now behold the entire creation; animate, inanimate, and whatever else you like to see; all at one place in My body.
But, you are not able to see Me with your physical eye; therefore, I give you the divine eye to see My majestic power and glory.

…having said this; Lord Krishna, the great Lord of (the mystic power of) yoga, revealed His supreme majestic form to Arjuna.
(Arjuna saw the Universal Form of the Lord) with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons.
Wearing divine garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides.

If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being.
Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as (all in) One (and One in all) in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.

Then Arjuna, filled with wonder and his hairs standing on end, bowed his head to the Lord and prayed with folded hands.
— Bhagavad Gita; Chapter 11: 1-14. Sir Edwin Arnold translation