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International Baccalaureate

Theory Of Knowledge

That which is accepted as knowledge
today is sometimes discarded tomorrow.
Consider knowledge issues raised by this
statement in two areas of knowledge.

Name: Kemmei Makishima (Christopher Jian Ming Liu)
Candidate Number: 003434-0037
Word Count: 1600
Dulwich College Beijing
Examination Session: May 2014
That which is accepted as knowledge today is sometimes discarded
tomorrow. Consider knowledge issues raised by this statement in
two areas of knowledge.
In order to tackle this statement, it is first integral to define the concept of
knowledge: what is knowledge? There are clearly different forms and levels of
knowledge but one popular definition of knowledge is Platos theory of justified
true belief: in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only
believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have justification for
doing so (Hegel). Platos theory implies that in order for a proposition to be
constituted as knowledge it must be true; however, I believe truth must be
considered independent of human knowledge, and that knowledge can still exist
without the relevant proposition being true. Because knowledge is a human
product we cannot equate it with truth, and it is merely our best attempt at
understanding such truths. Similarly, justifications of knowledge are based on
human judgement, suggesting that the justification criterion is also fallible: once
acceptable justifications are often deemed flawed or inadequate as time passes. In
my opinion, knowledge can be described as justified beliefs that are or have been
commonly accepted to be true (beyond reasonable doubt) by a society or
community. This does not mean that I am taking a relativist stance on the
definition of knowledge, but the stance that as long as obsolete knowledge was
once deemed to be beyond reasonable doubt it must still constitute as
knowledge, even if it is no longer accepted.
Whether or not tomorrow means a decade, a century, or even literally a passing
day, the shifting trends in beliefs and thought suggests that the nature of
knowledge is provisional, whether it is at the collective intellectual level or at the
individual level. Through the analysis of science and history, I will analyse the
validity of this statement and the accompanying knowledge issues raised by such
a statement using my altered definition of knowledge.

Almost all our knowledge on history derives from second hand knowledge, or
knowledge by authority, mainly in the forms of school education, the media, and
expert opinion. Because we rely on the reliability of second hand knowledge it
follows that if second hand knowledge is tampered with we have no means to
determine what is historical truth. Governments and political institutions are
often able to manipulate history in order to support their political causes, and
therefore are able to alter our knowledge.

There is no better example of this than that of the inconsistencies of Chen Du
Xiu, a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, regarding the Boxer Uprising,
which I have come across in IB History. During the New Culture Movement of the
1910-1920s Chen blasted the Boxer Rebellion as representative of the irrational
and backward Chinese culture that had halted cultural development, while in
1924 he hailed the Boxer Uprising as a significant milestone in the development
of Chinese nationalism (Cohen). His shifting political causes and his political
prominence consequently discarded the knowledge of the Boxers as backward
and replaced them in a nationalist and heroic light.

The ability for political institutions to control history is summed up no more so
than in one of my favourite political novels written by Orwell, 1984: Who
controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
Despite this being a clear example of discarded knowledge it can be also argued
that this is not truly an example where knowledge is discarded, rather knowledge
is distorted or withheld by individuals. However, if enough people commonly
accept it to be true, surely it constitutes knowledge.

Even if it is not an intentional political attempt to alter knowledge as is seen in
the previous examples, everybody suffers, unintentionally, from some form of
bias whether it be national, political or social. Even historians who aim to
determine the objective truth in history will be affected by some degree of bias. If
such is the case, it leads us to be critical and wary of the dangers of second hand
knowledge - if we conclude that all individuals are subject to some kind of
national bias, as knowers, how can we possibly look at history objectively? As
knowers it is important to be constantly critical of the reliability of sources and to
understand the shifting nature of second hand historical knowledge.

If historical bias is inevitable, it also leads us to be critical of language as a way of
knowing. Linguistic determinism suggests that language has ability to shape our
thought and this notion is exemplified no more by the Japanese euphemism to
describe the Nanjing Massacre as the Nanjing Incident, which I was taught
under Japanese education. It is important to grasp that even our ways of knowing
in the pursuit of knowledge are human constructs and therefore possess flaws. As
knowers, it is significant to continually question the reliability of second hand
historical knowledge.

There are also examples in history where different knowledge can in fact co-exist
and still be respected as knowledge; traditional views on historical events are
often contradicted, revised, or improved. One example of such a situation is that
of the causes for Japanese surrender in 1945: while traditionalists credit the
atomic bomb as the primary reason of Japanese surrender, Hasegawa Tsuyoshis
assertion that it was in fact Soviet entry into the war that led to Japanese
surrender is also a highly respected school of thought (Cook). How can
contrasting and contradictory knowledge both be accepted at the same time?
Historians accept to a certain extent the impossibility and the complexity of
determining historical truth. Historical knowledge is never black and white and
the impossibility of determining historical truth often allows contrasting
knowledge to co-exist.

Science, superficially at least, seems a much more black and white area of
knowledge in contrast to history. After all, the integral idea of skepticism in
science leads us to constantly improve and disprove existing theories. There are
clear examples where knowledge is fundamentally discarded as in the case of
paradigm shifts but it is inaccurate to say that all knowledge is constantly
discarded in science. As mentioned earlier the provisional nature of knowledge
suggests that even if knowledge is proved to be obsolete, it is often upon these
foundations that new knowledge is built.

One example of a paradigm shift is that of the transition from Lamarckism, a
once popular theory, to the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Lamarck, a
French biologist who lived in the 18
century, suggested that evolution occurs
because organisms adapt to the local environment during their lifetime and pass
on these adaptations to offspring, while Darwin, who lived in the 19
argued that those incapable of surviving the changing climate would naturally die
off and the remaining organism were those able to withstand the changing nature
of the local environment (Understanding Evolution). The lack of empirical
evidence to support Lamarcks view and the modern empirical evidence
supporting Darwins theory has led us to dismiss Lamarcks theory completely.

Even though our modern judgement concludes that Lamarcks justifications were
inadequate, the popularity of Lamarckism in the 18
century clearly suggests it
was considered to be adequately justified at the time. Therefore, although
Lamarcks observations were not ultimately supported by empirical evidence, it
still constitutes as knowledge. On top of this, I would even go on to argue that
even discarded paradigm can sometimes be useful in the discovery of future
paradigms. After all, Lamarck was one of the first to attempt to theorize
evolutionary change and surely built the foundations of evolutionary thought,
which Darwin would later challenge.

It is important to reemphasize the significant distinction between knowledge and
truth. It is wrong to claim the Darwinian theory of evolution as truth; can we
actually scientifically test and observe the evolution from species to species? I
myself support the Darwinian theory of evolution but it is entirely possible that
we are living in a paradigm which will be ridiculed only 100 hundred years from
now. I believe there is a modern misconception and tendency to equate science
with truth. Empirical research and reason as a way of knowing have their place,
but it is significant to understand that science is still merely a human endeavour
to understand truth and that scientific research is conducted within restrictions
of certain paradigms.

In the field of science there are also countless examples where knowledge is not
discarded, but in fact acts as the foundations for future discoveries and theories.
For example, Thompsons discovery of the electron in 1897 and his plum-
pudding model, despite its inaccuracies, acted as the foundation for the
improvements of the Rutherford model in 1911 and the Bohr model in 1913 (PBS
Online). Even the Bohr model is now considered obsolete, but they are still
respected as knowledge and are seen as significant in the study of the
composition of an atom. In this way and in countless other examples, science in
particular seems to value previous knowledge as simpler models are often
adequate in explaining something so complex as the composition of an atom.

Because it is impossible for mankind to determine truth, knowledge must be
viewed merely as the human attempt to comprehend the truths of our
incomprehensible world. Knowledge itself is fallible; it is a human construct and
hence the provisional nature of knowledge is inevitable. As displayed in the areas
of knowledge of science and history, and extending to all areas of knowledge, the
impermanent nature of human activity and human thought makes the
development of knowledge, or at times the devolution of knowledge, inevitable.
However, more often than not, knowledge is not always entirely discarded, and
often acts as the foundational blocks in the future pursuit of knowledge.

Works Cited

Cohen, Paul A. "The Boxers as History and Myth". Journal of Asian Studies 21.1
(1992): 82-113. JSTOR. Web. 2013/11/8<>.

Cook, Gareth. Why did Japan Surrender?. Bostonglobe. Globe newspaper
Company, 7 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2013

Early Concepts of Evolution: Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Understanding Evolution.
The National Science Foundation, 2004. Web. 28 Oct. 2013
Hegel, Plato. Justified True Belief. Eskesthai. Eskethai, 2 April. 2012. Web. 29
Oct. 2013 <

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.

Rutherford and Bohr describe atomic structure 1913. PBS Online. PBS, 1995.
Web. 27 Oct. 2013