Theory of Knowledge – Term Paper

Should key events in historical developments of areas of knowledge always be judged by the standards of their time?

Question Response

TOK Essay

Development of knowledge is shaped by a combination of various historical processes and events. These processes and events help us to understand why knowledge was construed in a particular way at a definite point in time, and why attitudes and perceptions about certain areas of knowledge changed over time. This brings into fore the notion of relativism, which has enabled the modern society to use objective standards in judging the historical events that shaped knowledge development in the past. Because different cultures and generations of the human race have had different perspectives and points of view, they applied different standards in the development. Thus, there are debates about whether past standards should be used to judge historical developments of knowledge.

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According to Stanley (2002, 242), new areas of knowledge can be developed and existing ones shaped by understanding key events and historical processes that led to the current knowledge. Each historical event had a different impact depending on how the generations that existed at the time viewed the world. The perceptions of each generation were in effect influenced by the cultural values and ideals of the people. Therefore, it is certain that different cultures and generations applied different standards in judging similar events. If the current generations were to apply the same standards that were applied in the past, they will arrive at different and mostly overlapping interpretations of the same phenomenon, which would distort knowledge.

Theory of Knowledge Essay Example

One area of knowledge where past generations have applied different standards is physics. It is a known fact that until a few centuries ago, humanity possessed an inaccurate understanding of the solar system. Across cultures, it was believed that the sun rotated around the earth. The past cultures used different standards to arrive at this flawed reasoning, which was a fundamental truth at the time (Littmann, 2004, 163). Today, it has been proved beyond the slightest doubt that the sun does not rotate around the earth. In essence, it is the earth that rotates around the sun. Therefore, if the current generations were to apply the same standards that were used in the past to study the solar system, they will make incorrect inferences, which will result in great distortion of knowledge.  

The above argument can be applied to other areas of knowledge such as psychology. For example, among some ancient communities, it was believed that mental illnesses were caused by acts of witchcraft. Therefore, magic potions were widely used to treat mental patients and to protect normal people from being bewitched (Koyanagi and Goldman, 1991, 901). Modern studies in psychology have greatly disputed the knowledge that acts of witchcraft cause mental illnesses. This means that a modern psychologist studying mental illnesses cannot apply the previous standards, which were based o the false belief of the perceived relationship between magic and mental illnesses.  

The two examples above have shown that standards of judging events that led to the historical development of knowledge change with time. Applying past standards can be inaccurate because some of the standards were based on limited knowledge of facts and relationships between phenomena. Nonetheless, modern generations should take cognizant of the fact that in the development of knowledge, there is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ This means that there is a need to refrain from making judgments that categorize past standards as right or wrong.


Koyanagi, C. and Goldman, H 1991, ‘The quiet success of the national plan for the chronically mentally ill’, Hospital & Community Psychiatry, vol. 42, no. 9, pp. 899–905.

Littmann, M 2004, Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System, Boston: Courier Dover Publications.  

Stanley, C 2002, Knowing and Acknowledging: Must We Mean What We Say?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.