TOK glossary

TOK glossary

This TOK glossary helps you to understand the key ideas of theory of knowledge, and provides you with a powerful tool for your TOK essay and presentation. Use the terms as much as possible, and ideally link them to as many of the key TOK thinkers as you can.


The position of agnostics is that the existence or non-existence of god is unproven, but that either of these truths is a possibility. Typically they do not involve themselves in any form of worship, but refuse to say outright that a supernatural entity does not exist.


In contrast to mimesis, is the idea that real life imitates art. It was most famously proposed by Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying. The implication of this is that we base our understanding of concepts such as beauty on what we learn from art.
Integral to our understanding of The arts

Areas of knowledge

Alongside the ways of knowing, TOK is divided into eight areas of knowledge: the arts, ethics, history, human sciences, indigenous knowledge systems, mathematics, natural sciences, and religious knowledge systems. These areas of knowledge are how we divide up our knowledge of the world.
The arts Ethics History HS IKS Mathematics NS RKS

Artistic license

An artistic license is to have the right claimed by artists to express themselves without having to adhere precisely to the truth. This presents problems when artistic works (such as films) are used by historians as secondary sources (ie telling us about an event) rather than primary sources (ie representing evidence in themselves, in terms of their outlook, technical ability, etc.).
Integral to our understanding of The arts

The arts

The arts are both a way of knowing and an area of knowledge in that they involve a method (like natural sciences) and a body of work. In TOK, we look at many different aspects of the arts, such as music, painting, literature, film, etc.
Integral to our understanding of The arts


Atheism is an active belief in the non-existence of god. Unlike agnosticism, which simply says that the existence of god is unproven, atheism says definitively that there is no god, citing the lack of evidence for this standpoint.
Integral to our understanding of RKS

Barnum statements

A Barnum statement (also known as the ‘Forer Effect’) is the term given to a statement about a person that they believe correctly describes them – such as a horoscope or ‘psychic reading’ – but which is, in fact, a general description that could apply to almost anyone. The meaning and sense is projected into the statement by the person reading it, rather than the statement being based on any real insight.
Reason HS

Blanket terminology

Blanket terminology is the name given to a term that assigns the same name to a range of often unrelated or disparate group of events, phenomena, or ideas. It is found most commonly in history, in which historical eras and long periods of time are assigned a name which tendentiously lends the impression of continuity. One such example is the ‘Cold War’.
Reason History HS

Cargo cults

Cargo cults, which have mostly died out, were quasi-religious movements situated in Pacific Islands that revered the material goods of Western colonizers. Natives of these islands, mostly unaware of how such goods were manufactured, ascribed magical properties to them, and in an attempt to access them, developed rituals and beliefs to summon them back after the colonizers had returned to their own countries.
Integral to our understanding of HS, IKS, RKS

The Categorical imperative

The Categorical Imperative was the foundation of Kant’s moral philosophy, and a strict code of behaviour. Its first formulation stated that you should ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ In other words, every action you take should be rigorously assessed in terms of its moral acceptability. Such things as lying, to give one example, were always and without exception unacceptable.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics


The causation of a phenomenon is what directly makes it occur. This is in distinct contrast to correlation, in which two phenomena are linked only by a third factor, or by accident.
Reason History HS NS


Censorship is related to propaganda, but differs in that it is the treatment of existing information or art to make it acceptable to the ideology of the authorities manipulating it. In other words, critical information is banned or altered, and favourable information is encouraged and circulated.
Integral to our understanding of The arts, ethics, HS

The coherence theory of truth

The coherence theory of truth states that something is true if it matches up to what we know to make sense. It is based on us using rational thinking.
Integral to our understanding of TNK

Cold readings

Cold readings are employed by self-styled psychics in order to make their clients believe that they possesses the ability to contact the dead, or perform supernatural tasks. Such individuals use existing knowledge of the person they are ‘reading’, linguistic tricks, and hints from the subject’s appearance and body language in order to conjure up information about them that it seems impossible for them to know. They make extensive use of Barnum statements.


The connotation of a word or phrase is a meaning we attach to it which is beyond its denotation, and may derive from emotional or cultural associations. One example would be the different connotations of the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’. They have very similar denotations, but one has a negative connotation, the other, a positive one.
Integral to our understanding of Language

The consensus theory of truth

The consensus theory of truth states that something is true if a majority or large number of people agree that it is true. It is universally regarded by philosophers as the least reliable of the theories of truth.
Integral to our understanding of TNK


Consequentialism is the ethical principle that you should judge how morally acceptable an action is on the basis of what its consequences are. It is the opposite viewpoint to intentionalism or deontologicalism
Integral to our understanding of Ethics

Constructed languages

Constructed languages are languages that have been ‘artificially’ created; ie, made up by humans. Examples include the language ‘Esperanto’ and computer programming languages. This is in contrast to natural languages.
Integral to our understanding of Language


Unlike causation, correlation suggests that two events or phenomena are linked only because they both share a third factor, or simply because they have happened at the same or similar time.
Reason History HS NS

The correspondence theory of truth

The correspondence theory of truth states something to be true if it matches up to what we can see is the case. It involves us applying empirical knowledge.
Integral to our understanding of TNK


Deduction is a form of reasoning in which you go from a general rule to a specific rule. If you use deduction strictly, it gives you certain knowledge.


A denotation of a word or phrase is its literal meaning, or the meaning defined by a literary authority (such as a dictionary). This is in contrast to the word’s connotation.
Integral to our understanding of Language


Although deontology is literally the study of duty, those who have a deontological approach to ethics believe that the morality of an action should be assessed purely on the motives (or intentions) behind that action. This was one of the cornerstones of Kant’s moral philosophy.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics


It’s hard to define emotion, and say where emotion ends. If we rely on the OED we find out that it is ‘a strong feeling, such as joy or anger’ and: ‘instinctive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.’


Epistemology is basically just a more impressive term for ‘theory of knowledge’. Accordingly, it is used at most universities for philosophy courses that deal with ideas and thinking on the way we acquire and use knowledge.
Integral to our understanding of TNK

Empirical knowledge

This is knowledge that we have gained personally, by experiencing it for ourselves – usually through our senses. It is sometimes termed a posteriori knowledge, meaning after experience.
Integral to our understanding of TNK


Esperanto was the constructed language invented in 1887 that hoped to provide speakers with a non-political language that could bridge national divides, and unite the human race. Although it was popular in the period after the First World War, its usage never really caught on outside the intellectual circles of Europe.
Integral to our understanding of Language, ethics


Ethics means the same as ‘moral philosophy’, or, the study of how to live our lives morally. It therefore has a different meaning to the word ‘morals’, and should not be used in quite the same way.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics


A euphemism is an alternative word to one which has undesirable connotations, used in order to give a more positive ‘spin’ to an expression.
Integral to our understanding of Language, ethics


According to Karl Popper, for a scientific theory to be truly scientific, it must be possible to falsify it. If this is not possible, then the theory may well reside in the realm of supernatural, superstitious, or faith-based areas.
Integral to our understanding of HS, NS

Gestalt theory

The Gestalt (the word is German for ‘whole’) group of psychologists believed that we discern something in its entirety before we work out its individual parts. This is how we understand the information provided to us by our visual sense.
Integral to our understanding of Intuition, SP, HS

Golden ratio

The golden ratio is a measurable ratio of proportions that can be applied (sometimes with a little artistic license) to architecture, fine art, and other expressions of the art. Its effect is to produce a pleasing aesthetic feeling in us, and was supposedly drawn on by many major artists throughout history.
Integral to our understanding of The arts

The Golden Rule

The Golden rule, an ethical principle found in many cultures and belief systems (religious or otherwise) states simply that you should behave towards others in a way you would like them to behave towards you.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics

Hawthorne effect

The Hawthorne effect, named after a study done into the Hawthorne Electrical Works in Chicago in the 1920s, is the phenomenon of human subjects behaving differently due to being studied by investigators. It is one of the problems that has to overcome in order to arrive at reliable knowledge in the human sciences.
Integral to our understanding of HS

Heliocentric theory

This theory, introduced by Copernicus, stated that the sun – not the earth – was the centre of the universe. It represented a paradigm shift in terms of how we viewed the universe, moving us forward from the geocentric paradigm.
Integral to our understanding of NS


Most people make the mistake of conceiving of history as the past (they refer to events that ‘happened in history’), but – and this is the reason why the subject is of interest in TOK – History is the study of past events. There’s a big difference.
Integral to our understanding of History

Human sciences

The human sciences is the name given to a vast range of disciplines involving anything to do with human behaviour, and the workings of human society. Examples include sociology, anthropology, psychology, and law.
Integral to our understanding of HS


Induction is a form of reasoning in which you go from a specific rule to a general rule. Unlike deduction, induction never gives us certain knowledge, unless you are dealing with mathematics.

Inside method

In the human sciences, the inside method involves focusing on individual members of the society that is being studied, and trying to understand and empathize with them. It is the opposite, of course, of the outside method.
Integral to our understanding of HS


Unlike naturalist observation, interpretivism involves the human scientist interacting and relating with the subject matter in order to understand it better. The German term for this is Verstehen.
Integral to our understanding of HS


During the two years of the TOK course, you are expected to keep a TOK journal. You should write down as many personal experiences, interesting news stories, books you have read, films you have seen, and anything else that has made you think.
The TOK Course


Definitions vary, but Plato’s is as good as any: ‘Justified, true belief.’
Integral to our understanding of TNK

Knowledge by acquaintance

Knowledge by acquaintance, a term used by Bertrand Russell, is anything that we know from personal experience.
Integral to our understanding of TNK

Knowledge by description

Another Russell term, this is knowledge that we know by being told by other people, or finding out from another source.
Integral to our understanding of TNK

Knowledge questions

Knowledge questions are exactly that, ‘questions about knowledge’. They are the implications of what we examine within real life case studies. Note that they were formerly termed ‘knowledge issues’.
Knowledge questions


The OED definition of language begins with: ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.’ This will do for us.
Integral to our understanding of Language

Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking, a phrase coined by Edward de Bono, means thinking creatively and sometimes in an unorthodox manner, to arrive at a solution about a problem. It means the same as ‘thinking out of the box’.

Linguistic relativity principle

Also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this is the idea that our understanding of the word depends to a large extent on the language which we speak. Different cultures perceive the world in different ways, because they express themselves in different ways. This opposes the idea of a universal grammar.
Integral to our understanding of Language


Logic is formal reasoning, or reasoning that follows strict rules.

Logical fallacies

A logical fallacy is an idea or assertion that uses flawed reasoning to arrive at its conclusion. Fallacies may occur by accident, or be used by people deliberately to persuade others of the dubious truth of what they are saying.


Mimesis is the idea that art imitates life. The artist sees ‘reality’ and tries to express it on canvas, in marble, or using whatever medium at his disposal.
Integral to our understanding of The arts


Morals relate to principles that are considered right or wrong. Action is determined as ‘morally acceptable’ or ‘immoral’ depending on whether it matches up to what is considered a ‘good’ of ‘bad’ way of behaving, usually measured by how it affect other members of society. Ethics is the study of morals, in the same way as history is the study of the past – try not to get the words mixed up!
Integral to our understanding of Ethics

Naturalist observation

In the human and natural sciences, naturalist observation relies on the investigator remaining removed from the subject matter, so as not to influence it in any way.
Integral to our understanding of HS, NS


Nationalism is the emotionally-based belief that humans should be defined by the political entity in which they live, and that their allegiance should lie first and foremost to the government and people of that place. It often assumes a superiority of one’s own nation in comparison to others, and can act as a psychological bias when it comes to a study of history, human sciences, and other areas of knowledge.
Emotion Reason History HS

Natural language

A natural language is our ‘native tongue/s’, the language/s we learn to speak from an early age by absorbing the sounds we hear around us. This is in contrast to a constructed language.
Integral to our understanding of Language

Natural sciences

The natural sciences is the area of knowledge dealing with the natural word. Obvious examples include chemistry, biology, and physics, but there are countless other fields that come under this term.
Integral to our understanding of NS


Newspeak was the language of the authorities in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Newspeak discarded any words that were not efficient, and placed highly utilitarian words in their place, in order to control the way people thought.
Integral to our understanding of Language


Onomatopoeia is the name given to a word which imitates the source of the sound it describes. One example is the name of the bird ‘cuckoo’, which stems from the noise of its call.
Integral to our understanding of Language

Outside method

In the human sciences, the outside method involves focusing on the whole of society, and seeing individuals as a product of this. It also involves investigators remaining separated and distant from what is being studied, in order to remain objective. The alternative approach is the inside method.
Integral to our understanding of HS

Paradigm shifts

A term coined by Thomas Kuhn, who said that instead of our scientific knowledge progressing in a linear, passive fashion, new ideas occur violently, and completely revolutionize (or shift) our view of the world (our paradigm).
Integral to our understanding of NS


Periodization is the term Arthur Marwick gave to grouping together often unrelated events and processes in history simply because they occurred at a similar time, and assigning them a name. It is therefore very similar to blanket terminology.
Integral to our understanding of History


Perspective in art was the big leap forward in technique which happened during the period we term the ‘Renaissance’. It meant that paintings and drawings became much more three dimensional and realistic, and represented a paradigm shift forward in the expression of artistic ideas.
Integral to our understanding of SP, the arts

The pragmatic truth test

This theory states that something is true if it works for us. It is connected to the philosophy of pragmatism, and to the key (though not necessarily the archetypal) figure of that movement, William James.
Integral to our understanding of TNK


Propaganda is the communication of ideas or images in such a way that subjects will be emotionally persuaded of a particular ideological standpoint or political cause, and support it. It is frequently dressed up as art, but the difference is that it has a particular agenda, and is never impartial. It is worth pointing out that the Spanish word ‘propaganda’ means ‘advertising’, and the two have a lot in common.
Emotion The arts HS


A pseudo-science is a discipline that may claim to follow the scientific method, but which does not do so in a strict way. Its results are therefore not as objective or reliable as a true science.
Integral to our understanding of Reason NS

Punk music

Punk music first appeared as a protest against what punk musicians considered a betrayal of rock and roll, as performers composed increasingly pleasant music that appealed to all groups in society. Punks considered that rock should come laden with a political message that challenged the established order, and write music accordingly.
Integral to our understanding of The arts, HS

Qualitative data

Quantitative data is anything that gives us subjective information, that may involve values and opinions about something. It is the type of evidence valued more by those who follow the inside method in human sciences.
Integral to our understanding of HS, NS

Quantitative data

Quantitative data is anything that gives us objective, value-free information about something. It is the type of evidence valued more by those who follow the outside method in human sciences.
Integral to our understanding of HS, mathematics, NS

Rational knowledge

Rational knowledge, unlike empirical knowledge, is knowledge we believe is true because it seems reasonable, and fits in with other things we know are true. It is often more theoretical than empirical knowledge, and often cannot be experienced with the senses, for example, mathematical knowledge.
Integral to our understanding of TNK


Reason is a word with a huge amount of meanings, but in TOK we understand it to be the way of knowing which involves us in trying to make sense of the world using logic, rationality, comparison, judgement, and experience.


Reciprocity means giving something back when you receive something. For Jean Jacques Rousseau it formed the basis of the ‘social contract’ between government and people, whereby the latter were according rights and protection in return for paying taxes.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics, HS


If you have a relativist outlook you believe that areas of knowledge (such as history and ethics) have malleable truths that depend on the perspective of the person or society studying them. It refutes the idea of objective knowledge, because such a thing can never be attained due to our infinitely varied way of perceiving the world.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics, HS

Scientific method

The scientific method is what defines an investigation as truly scientific more than the subject matter of the investigation. It involves several strict stages, all of which must be followed, to arrive at a demonstrable conclusion.
Integral to our understanding of NS

Sense perception

Our senses are (according to the OED): ‘any of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, by which the body perceives an external stimulus.’
Integral to our understanding of SP


Serendipity has one of the most specific meanings of any word in the English language. It means an accidental discovery or event that leads to a positive benefit for the person to whom it occurs.
Integral to our understanding of NS

Somatic marker hypothesis

The somatic marker hypothesis is a hypothesis put forward by the neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio. It proposes that emotional experiences we have in our lives leave a chemical trace behind in our brain, and these chemicals are unconsciously accessed when we are faced with a similar event again, helping us to find a resolution.
Emotion Reason HS


Stoicism was a Hellenistic (ancient Greek) philosophical movement that massively influenced the early Christian religion. It is based on many principles, but one of the central ones is that the effects of damaging emotions can be overcome simply by refusing to view them as damaging, focusing instead on reasoning to arrive at the truth. Important Stoic thinkers include Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca.
Emotion Reason


Superstition is either discerning a pattern in the natural world when there isn’t one, or not discerning a pattern when there is one, and then ascribing such a phenomenon to an entity ungoverned by the laws of nature.
Reason HS


A syllogism is an example of a logical argument in which two premises lead to a conclusion. If syllogisms use correct premises, their conclusion must always be valid. One of the most famous syllogism goes like this:
Premise 1: All men are human
Premise 2: Socrates was a man
Conclusion: Socrates was human

Tabula Rasa

Literally, ‘blank slate’. This was John Locke’s idea that we are born without any innate (or a priori) knowledge, and that we build up knowledge about the world as we experience it. Some previous thinkers – such as Plato – had believed that we spend our lives trying to access the knowledge that we are born with.
Integral to our understanding of TNK

Universality of beauty

The idea that beauty is universal is one that has interested art critics and aesthetic thinkers for centuries. Either one sees beauty as a cultural and social construct, or it is something that runs deeper into our psyches, and is atavistically related to human instincts and behaviour.
Integral to our understanding of SP, the arts

Universal Grammar theory

This theory, advanced by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, states that our ability to acquire languages is hardwired into our brains, rather than being different in different cultures. By extension, we perceive the world in the same way, regardless of the language we speak.
Integral to our understanding of Language


Utilitarianism is the position that believes that an action is morally correct if its actions benefit more people than it harms. It is related to consequentialism.
Integral to our understanding of Ethics, HS


The German term for interpretivism, coined by the sociologist Max Weber.
Integral to our understanding of HS

Ways of knowing

The TOK course is divided into eight ways of knowing: emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, language, memory, reason, and sense perception. These ways of knowing are how we gather our knowledge about the world.
Emotion Faith Imagination Intuition Language Memory Reason SP

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. TOK glossary (16th March 2014). Last accessed: 20th March 2018


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