Knowledge Questions arise from thinking deeply about Knowledge Claims.


A knowledge claim something that a claimant believes (or purports) to be true, but is open to fact-checking, discussion and/or debate.  First Order knowledge claims are made about the real world. 


  • In economics, how do supply and demand determine the price of a commodity?

  • Why was the lock-and-key model for enzyme activity superseded by the induced-fit model?

  • Should I give money to this homeless person?

  • What metaphors in William Blake's Auguries of Innocence evoke the positive value of freedom?

  • Too what extent was the siege of Stalingrad the turning point of the Second World War?

The examples above are complex, open questions that merit deep analysis; but they are not (in TOK parlance) Knowledge Questions.

TOK students explore the basis of First Order claims with Second Order Knowledge Questions. Second Order Knowledge Claims are made about knowledge itself.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563)   The Tower of Babel.  Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563) The Tower of Babel. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


Knowledge Questions are rigorous inquiry questions about knowledge itself.  

A good Knowledge Question is crafted deliberately to be open, general and contentious. It is succinct and grammatical, uses TOK vocabulary, and merits discussion and evaluation rather than a single, definitive response.


  • To what extent do we need art technique or art history training in order to appreciate an artwork?

  • What is the relationship between hands-on experimental work and theory in the natural sciences?

  • What do we mean by elegance in mathematical proof?

  • How should we approach academic history written under the auspices a totalitarian regime?

  • What is the role of intention in making ethical decisions?

Currently in TOK—especially in formal Essays and Presentations—formulating* quality Knowledge Questions is the order of the day. How students address them is also paramount. The various analytical arguments and counterarguments made in response to Knowledge Questions should be justified by cogent, real-world examples. In this way the reader (or observer) will journey back and forth across an imaginary line between the Second Order conceptual world and the First Order real world. 

*For the formal assessments in the New Curriculum Model (for first teaching in 2020) there will be a shift in assessment strategy. Students will be required to analyze prescribed Knowledge Questions, rather than formulating Knowledge Questions of their own. No doubt, bolder and more insightful TOK students will transcend the assessment rubrics and will continue to craft their own Knowledge Questions spontaneously! See also: Reflections on the very best TOK essays.

Jacques-Louis David (1787)   The Death of Socrates.  Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Jacques-Louis David (1787) The Death of Socrates. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


TOK is not traditional text-based philosophy. Nor is it Epistemology with a major emphasis on the useful, but ultimately slippery and paradoxical, notion of Justified True Belief. 

TOK Knowledge Questions are big questions; but they are not too big. Anchored in the real world they stop short of wild metaphysical speculation. Ever so often timeless philosophical riddles emerge naturally in TOK classes. It can be fun; even awe inspiring to allow students a first pass or brief encounter with them. This is more than playing tennis with the net down; as long as dizzy, aimless discussion is avoided; or better—elevated.

One way of framing the biggest (from the Western perspective: “Pre-Socratic”) metaphysical questions is to acknowledge that they are way beyond the scope of 100 hours of TOK. Their resolution may be forever beyond the grasp of mere human intellect and ingenuity.

Another way is to designate (and perhaps sanitize) them as part of the subject matter of Philosophy (as a Human Science); or delve as they arise in the Religious Knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge optional Themes. 


  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

  • What is the nature of time?

  • Does the universe have an ultimate purpose or meaning?

  • Is there God?