What the TOK Syllabus has to say about … Reason



Key Quotations:

·         ‘It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.’ Bertrand Russell (1950)

·         ‘Lack of logic annoys. Too much logic is boring. Life escapes logic, and everything built on logic alone is artificial and limited. Therefore is a word that the poet must ignore, that exists only in the mind.’ Andre Gide

·         “Thinking is a form of feeling…feeling is a form of thinking.” Susan Sontag


Overall Summary:

Reason is a way of knowing that involves different elements. In a very general sense, reasoning is a collective endeavour by which people construct meaning together by exchanging, modifying and improving their ideas and opinions. When someone makes a claim to know, it is legitimate to ask forreasons and to expect that these will be coherent. Arguments require consistency. Reason is perhaps as present in everyday decision making and problem solving as it is in mathematics, sciences and other areas of knowledge. The requirements of logical validity and rigour serve these various purposes 


In different degrees and in different ways, it is arguable that reason has its place in many, if not all, areas of knowledge as well as in the everyday experience of individuals and the groups to which we belong. It may be worth considering how reason is used in these different domains to discover and create, to articulate, to justify and assess knowledge claims. For when disputes arise, what is at issue is not only the substance or facts of the matter, but also the appropriateness of the reasons given for acceptance of the facts, and the validity of the logical procedures used in reaching the conclusion. The questions in this section probe the nature, value and limits of reason, and the logic that many suppose is a shared standard of evaluation.



Questions about … the Nature of reason

·         One of the roles traditionally attributed to reason is to find balance or equilibrium between two extremes. Is this idea still relevant as a description of the role that reason plays in the search for self-knowledge? What does it mean for someone to be reasonable?

·         What is the difference between reasoning about means and reasoning about ends? Is one more prevalent or more valuable than the other?

·         What is the role of reason in the creation and recognition of patterns in nature and in social life?

·         Is reason purely objective and universal, or does it vary across cultures? Is logic purely objective and universal?

·         Formal logic is the study of form in argument, irrespective of the subject matter. Is it really possible to study the logic of an issue independent of its content, and how beneficial is it to do so? Does the answer to this question depend upon the subject matter under consideration? Does it depend on the area of knowledge to which the subject matter belongs?

·         What is the relationship between reason as a way of knowing and logic in its different forms (inductive, deductive, intuitive, natural)? Is it possible and worthwhile to “translate” everyday arguments into formal logical structure, and what might be lost in the translation? How does the commonsense use of “it’s logical”, meaning “it makes sense to me”, differ from its technical meaning of “it has a valid argument form”?


Questions about … Reason and knowledge

·         What possibilities for knowledge are created by reason? What are the advantages of being able to reason about something rather than, say, feeling something, dreaming about something, wishing something to be the case?

·         Does all knowledge require some kind of rational basis?

·         If knowledge claims cannot be rationally defended, should they be renounced? Is the answer to this question dependent on the area of knowledge of the claim?

·         Can reason on its own, independent of sense perception, emotion and language, ever give us knowledge? Or are reason and language inseparable in the quest for, construction and justification of knowledge?

·         What constitutes a good argument? What is the value of learning to distinguish between valid and invalid arguments?



Questions about … the Strengths and weaknesses of reason

·         What are the advantages of discriminating between valid and invalid arguments, good and bad reasons, more or less persuasive reasoning, both for the individual knower and for society?

·         Why are informal fallacies often plausible and convincing? When, where and by whom are they formulated? Are there circumstances under which the use of informal fallacies can be justified, for example, in public advertising campaigns aimed at persuading us to donate money for good causes (for example, humanitarian relief, children’s funds)?

·         How can beliefs affect our capacity to reason well and to recognize valid arguments? Can they affect a person’s capacity to distinguish between fallacy, good argument and rationalization? What is the difference between a rational argument and a rationalization?

·         What, if any, are the advantages of expressing arguments in symbolic terms? Are the ambiguity and vagueness of conventional language eliminated by this formulation?

·         Are there some parts of human life or experience where reason has no real function?


Links to the Areas of Knowledge

·         How does the role of reason compare with the roles of the other ways of knowing? Why might some people think that reason is superior, and what consequences does holding this position have for the knowledge pursued and the methods considered appropriate in the pursuit?

·         Does the role of reason affect the degree of certainty in, or the social status of, the various areas of knowledge? What are the implications of the answer to this question when disputes arise among practitioners and between cultures?

·         Attempts have been made to identify universal, self-evident and incontrovertible laws of logic, such as the law of identity (for example, “an apple is an apple”) or the law of non-contradiction (for example, “nothing can be an apple and also a non-apple”). Are these actually laws in the scientific sense of the term, or are they axioms?

·         How do logical axioms compare with axioms in mathematics, and with the underlying beliefs we take for granted in other areas of knowledge?

·         What is the role of reason in ethical principles and their justification? Is reason more important to acting morally than other ways of knowing?