Tag Archives: definitions

AGAINST empathy? Really?

170213-hands(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “In the moral domain…empathy leads us astray,” argues Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University. “We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivated by compassion and care for others.”  Bloom adopts a provocative stance to focus attention on what we in IB Theory of Knowledge would call “ways of knowing”, and ties emotion, imagination, and reason to ethics as an area of knowledge. Continue reading

Is that woman really a man? Tidy categories, messy world


(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Swift and powerful, the athletes burst across the finish line of the women’s 800 metre in Rio. The Olympics gave the world another moment of glorious human achievement as 25-year-old Caster Semenya took the gold medal for South Africa. In the background of her performance, however, controversy swirled around claims that Semenya had an unfair advantage in a women’s competition – that she didn’t fit into the category “woman”.

The issue contentious in the Rio competition is one we confront constantly as we construct our knowledge: how to classify things and whether we can do so in a way that delineates our world neatly into categories. Classifying is basic to observing, and to the naming that enables us to share our knowledge. But what a complex world it is, often eluding the systematizing we bring to it! Continue reading

“Natural selection” and the early career of a metaphor

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “Metaphors, as we all by now know, aren’t just ornamental linguistic flourishes—they’re basic building blocks of everyday reasoning. And they’re at their most potent when they recast a difficult-to-understand phenomenon as something familiar.” So writes cognitive scientist Kensy Cooperrider. In giving the backstory of Darwin’s choice of “natural selection” for evolution, he provides a short article for any Theory of Knowledge teacher to note, relevant to language as a way of knowing and the natural sciences as an area of knowledge. Continue reading

World Refugee Day: What do our categories leave out?

refugeeUN300Today, a PS to this past week’s posts on classifying human beings. What do our categories highlight, and what do they exclude? My past two posts have used current examples from the media to raise knowledge questions about “race” and the contentious balance between biological heritage and culture or ethnicity (a balance that carries varies labeling in various contexts). Today I’d like to comment, just briefly, on another classification of human beings, one that carries enormous significance for how we live in the world Continue reading

Classification and implications: Who is black, or indigenous, or Jewish?

(by Eileen Dombrowski) I ended my last post with questions about Rachel Dolezal’s claims to be black: “Are her personal knowledge claims the deciding factor, in your mind, for determining her racial identity? Why or why not?” What has captured media attention, it seems, is the way in which her story pits her own personal knowledge claims about her own racial identity against social knowledge claims of racial classification – and this in a society where racial categorization is charged with assumptions, associations from history and politics, values, and implications for treatment.

What captures my own TOK attention, however, is more generalized. It’s the differing bases and justifications for general classifications, of course. But even more intriguing is the way particular examples fit – or, being human, sometimes dramatically refuse to fit – into the categories assigned to them. As soon as we take two steps back from Rachel Dolezal’s story, others flood into the space. Who is black? Who’s an Indian? Who’s Jewish? Continue reading

“Passing” as black: classification and social implications

A story currently running in the media jolts me out of summertime diversions, straight back to TOK. I find knowledge questions about classification magnetic, especially when the categories constructed have social and emotional resonance as they are applied to human beings – as has the categorization of “race”.

This week’s incident gives an interesting twist to American stories of people of one race “passing” as another. Rachel Dolezal, president of a Washington state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has been exposed by her birth parents as lying about being black. She is white – and they have the birth certificate to prove it. Many people have condemned her deception, including her black adopted brother who describes her “blackface” as “a slap in the face to African-Americans”.

Yet she is clearly a leader in Washington state’s black community, an expert on Black American culture, and an advocate for the community on issues of civil rights. Asked by a reporter whether she was black or white, Dolezal responded only, “That question is not as easy as it seems. There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that.” Continue reading