What Is Knowledge? A Brief Primer (2023)

In everyday usage, knowledge refers to awareness of or familiarity with various objects, events, ideas, or ways of doing things. But, as philosophers have noted for centuries, things get complicated fairly quickly. Consider, for example, the question: What is real? Is the coke bottle on my desk real? Are the trees outside my window real? What about the number pi? What about the pain from the slight cut on my finger? As one ponders these questions, they quickly give rise to the question of how do I come to know things in the first place?

Separating the "How" From the "What" of Knowledge

With some reflection, it becomes clear that, at least to some extent, what is real for me depends in part on how I come to know things. For example, my perceptual, cognitive background structures allow me to experience and understand the Coke bottle on my desk in a particular way; different perceptual or cognitive background structures would result in a different reality. This point was well made in the 1980 film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which tells the story of the dramatic impact a Coke bottle dropped by a passing airplane had on an isolated tribe in the Kalahari Desert.

The tribesmen interpreted the bottle as a gift from the gods, and the film tracked how that meaning permeated the tribe and impacted its members. This brief example highlights the two broadest angles philosophers take regarding knowledge, which is that of “epistemology” and “ontology.” Ontology refers to the question of reality and is about determining what can be said to really exist in the world. In contrast, epistemology refers to how we humans know things. A “theory of knowledge” would explain what knowledge was, how humans could come to know things, what truly existed in the world, and the complicated relationship between the two.

A Basic Approach to Conceptualizing Knowledge

One of the oldest and most venerable traditions in the philosophy of knowledge characterizes knowledge as “justified true belief." Although not all philosophers agree that “justified true belief” does in fact adequately characterize the nature of knowledge, it remains the most dominant conception of knowledge.

Thus, for many, knowledge consists of three elements: 1) a human belief or mental representation about a state of affairs that 2) accurately corresponds to the actual state of affairs (i.e., is true) and that the representation is 3) legitimized by logical and empirical factors.

To be clear about this last element, it is not considered knowledge if, for example, a child, when asked about the molecular nature of water, says “H 2 0” simply because he is parroting what he has heard. In contrast, a chemist who answers “H 2 0” has knowledge because his representation is meaningfully networked and justified by much prior knowledge and careful deductive work.

Justification, thus, is central to this idea of knowledge. The question of what kind of justification is necessary to constitute knowledge is the focus of much reflection and debate among philosophers.

Three prominent approaches that have been taken in an attempt to articulate how justifiable beliefs are formed are: 1) foundationalism, which attempts to articulate foundationally true beliefs, from which other conclusions can be derived; 2) coherentism, which argues that knowledge consists of systems and must be evaluated on the degree to which the system has logical coherence that corresponds to external facts; and 3) reliablism, which argues that there are good and bad ways to develop beliefs, and that justified beliefs are those beliefs that are formed based on good and reliable methods. Although philosophers disagree on which is most fundamental, most agree that justification can and should involve all of these elements.

Kinds of Knowledge

Philosophers often divide knowledge up into three broad domains: personal, procedural, and propositional. Personal knowledge relates to firsthand experience, idiosyncratic preferences, and autobiographical facts. Procedural knowledge refers to knowledge of how to do something, such as how to play basketball or ride a bike. Propositional knowledge refers to general truth claims about the world and how we know it. An important difference between philosophy and psychology can be seen in these various kinds of knowledge. Whereas philosophers have generally been concerned with general propositional knowledge, psychologists have generally concerned themselves with how people acquire personal and procedural knowledge.

Ways of Knowing: Empirical and Rational

By what mechanisms do we come to achieve knowledge? The two most dominant answers to this question in philosophy have come from the rationalists and the empiricists. The rationalists argue that we utilize reason to arrive at deductive conclusions about the most justifiable claims. Rationalists tend to think more in terms of propositions, deriving truths from argument, and building systems of logic that correspond to the order in nature. Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant are some of the most famous rationalists, in contrast to John Locke and David Hume, who are famous empiricists.

Empiricists tend to argue that the most basic knowledge we achieve about the world comes from our senses, the direct observations that we make about the world. The distinction between the rationalists and empiricists in some ways parallels the modern distinction between philosophy and science. As the scientific method emerged and became increasingly distinct from the discipline of philosophy, the fundamental distinction between the two was that science was constructed on empirical observation, whereas the initial traditions in philosophy (e.g., Aristotle) were grounded more in utilizing reason to build systems of knowledge.

Modern Versus Post-Modern Views on the Nature of Knowledge

The birth of science gave rise to the Enlightenment, and arguably the defining feature of the Enlightenment was the belief that humans could use reason and scientific observation and experimentation to develop increasingly accurate models of the world. Such models were conceived to be “true” in the sense that they described ontology (the way the world was) in a manner that was separate from subjective impressions. The Periodic Table of Elements is a great example of the success of the idea that nature can be objectively described.

But in many disciplines, especially in the social sciences and humanities, since the 1960s there has been an increasing chorus of voices that challenge the conception of scientific knowledge as being a pristine, objective map of the one true reality. Instead, many have argued that human knowledge is inherently based on context, that is created in part by the way the human mind organizes and constructs perceptions and also by the way the social context legitimizes certain ideas in various historical and political times, and that these elements cannot be completely divorced from our “knowledge”. These scholars fall under the broad term “postmodernism” to highlight the contrast in assumptions regarding the nature of knowledge in contrast to the modernist assumptions of the Enlightenment.

Recent Systems of Knowledge

Although several modern philosophers seriously doubt whether a successful theory of knowledge can be built, there nonetheless have been identifiable developments in mapping knowledge domains and attempting to develop educational systems that begin with the basic structure and domains of knowledge. One such development has been the development of the "Theory of Knowledge" International Baccalaureate Diploma Program that teaches students about the ways of knowing and the domains of knowledge such that they can approach many different areas of inquiry with a grounding in how knowledge systems are built.

A second system that has been gaining some notoriety lately is that of Big History, which attempts to create a macro-level perspective of humans since the beginning of time.

My framework, the Tree of Knowledge System, is an approach that has elements in common with both of these approaches. The ToK System carries as a unique feature the proposition that reality is an unfolding wave of energy and information that has developed in four major phases, Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture. As part of a new unified view, I argue that it solves the long-standing problem of psychology and thus offers a new way to bridge philosophy and psychology and integrate human knowledge systems into a more coherent holistic view.

What Is Knowledge? A Brief Primer (1)

The Tree of Knowledge System

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