Theory of Knowledge (TOK) glossary

Adam Steele

If there is one subject guaranteed to introduce you to new vocabulary, it’s Theory of Knowledge (TOK) for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP). While maths and the sciences have a lot of subject specific vocabulary, in the TOK course you will find words that are common in other subjects, such as economics or politics.

This is just one of the reasons why TOK is great! It is a subject that builds a wider vocabulary – useful for other studies and life after education.

So, if you are confused by ‘censorship’ or unsure about ‘utilitarianism’, then the downloadable TOK glossary below will help you make sense of things.

Download glossary

Here are some of our favourite TOK-themed words to add to your vocabulary and give you a wider view of the subject’s language.

TOK glossary sample

Alternative facts: in the context of post-truth politics, alternative views to more widely accepted and verified beliefs.

Big data: the vast amount of varied digital data sets, which can be analysed to identify patterns, associations and trends.

Confirmation bias: the tendency to believe evidence that supports your opinions, and ignore or discount evidence that goes against what you believe.

Dunning–Kruger effect: a cognitive bias where we find it difficult to know the limit of our knowledge and expertise. If we have a little knowledge in a particular area, we may overestimate our level of knowledge and competence in that area. In this way, a little knowledge may lead to an unjustified illusion of greater knowledge.

Echo chamber: a space in which sound reverberates, so any sounds made are repeated over and over as they bounce from the walls; an environment in which people only encounter beliefs or opinions like their own, so they don’t consider alternative ideas and their own ideas are reinforced; in the context of technology, the effect created by social media and news whereby people only encounter ideas that are the same as their own, reinforcing their existing perspective.

False dichotomy: when a situation is presented as having just two possible options, when other perspectives are not only possible, but highly likely.

Google effect (or Google amnesia): the tendency to forget information that can easily be found online.

History from above: also known as ‘top-down’ history, this focuses on the perspectives of the leaders, rulers and those in power, and the social and cultural elites of the time.

Irony: a figure of speech in which words are used to say one thing and mean the opposite.

Justify: to show that a belief or decision is well-founded and reasonable.

Key concept: in the context of a TOK essay, the central TOK idea specified in the essay title, for example ‘certainty’, ‘justification’, ‘interpretation’ etc.

Linguistic determinism: the idea that our language and its structures limit and determine what and how we think, and what we can know.

Metacognitive: relating to your own thought processes.

Nuance: subtle difference or shades of meaning.

Objectivity: a detached way of looking at the world, largely independent of personal feelings or opinions, that expects to be corroborated by a knowledge community.

Post-modern: a movement of 20th-century thinkers who thought that knowledge, reason, ethics and truth are a social, cultural and political construction.

Qualitative: relating to, measuring or measured by the quality of something, rather than its quantity; qualitative studies use a method to give a detailed narrative about a human phenomenon that describes a culture or shares a story.

Relativity: recognising that knowledge claims are dependent on contextual factors or frames of reference.

Subjectivity: looking at the world from a personal point of view, under the influence of feelings and emotions.

Tribalism: the behaviours and attitudes that arise out of membership of or loyalty to a social group.

Utilitarianism: the belief that ethics can ultimately be reduced to the principle that we should maximise happiness.

Validity: the property of an argument in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises.

Worldview: an overarching theory about the nature of the universe and human beings’ place in it.


For full help and guidance with the IB Theory of Knowledge, check out our expert resources