Pushing and Pulling at the concept of Knowledge

By | March 25, 2010

Epistemology is that discipline in philosophy that deals with the concept of knowledge, the various problems relating to the concept such as: our attempts to define knowledge, and to identify the sources and limits of knowledge, to state the distinction between knowledge and opinion, and analyze the concept of truth.

Traditionally the philosophical question of knowledge primarily concerns propositional knowledge, i.e., knowing that such and such is so (that a proposition is true, e.g., knowing that Santa Ana is in Orange County, California), as contrasted with possessing a skill, talent or ability, as in knowing how to fix a Volkswagon engine or knowing how to play the piano. But some modern philosophers pay more attention the latter types of knowledge.

Knowledge involves the concept of truth insofar as the proposition (belief) known must be true. There is no such thing as knowledge of a false proposition. In addition, claiming that some proposition is true generally requires that I be able to show how I gained knowledge of this true proposition. Someone can justifiably challenge me to show how I gained knowledge of this truth.

(Of course, much of what we “know” to be true is knowledge we have acquired from others: scientists, investigators, historians, scholars, etc. – We could call this “culturally based knowledge”; but in some cases, we should have some idea how our claims to knowledge can be justified, although only the expert or the specialist would actually be able to carry out the tests or procedures that justify the claim to knowledge.)

Sometimes we speak of knowing someone or something instead of knowing that someone is such and such, as when I tell you that I know Sam, or that I knew Susan before she became Suzanne. Some people are inclined to call this knowledge by acquaintance. “I know that man” and “I know what desperate love is, having experienced it” are other examples. This ‘knowledge’ may seem different from propositional knowledge, but probably is not. Certainly, “knowing the man” and “knowing desperate love” can be restated propositionally if we possess the required writing skill.

Sometimes we see cases of “knowing how” as knowledge by acquaintance: I know the way to Kansas City. But ‘knowing the way to K.C.” is more clearly understood as knowing how to get to K.C.

But some people argue that ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ differs from propositional knowledge. “I know that song” means I am very familiar with it, know the melody and lyrics, can sing it if I choose. It doesn’t mean that I know some true proposition about it. Another example of knowledge by acquaintance: I know how it feels to lose a loved one to cancer. I have gone through the experience, and thus know what it is like. Could we call this ‘experiential knowledge’?
(Notice that even this kind of knowledge requires application of the correct concepts and some propositional description.)

It seems true that when we know that such and such, or when we know some individual, we have gotten something right, we have hit the target, so to speak. But the analogy is limited; for sometimes we can hit the target accidentally; but possessing knowledge is more akin to hitting the target because of our skill as marksmen. If we can make good our claim to knowing something, we’re expected to do more than simply claim we made a good guess, and by chance hit upon the truth. Yet one can gain genuine knowledge by a fortunate accident: e.g., the boy who fell into a cave and found the ancient scrolls. By accident he has come to know where the scrolls are hidden. Contrast this with the adult who guesses correctly, yet has not been able to verify the fact that the scrolls are hidden in that cave. By inductive inference and good luck, he has made a good conjecture, but cannot be said to know; whereas the boy knows.
(Someone might want to challenge this.)

“He speaks the truth” does not logically imply “He knows the truth.” For he might have hit upon the truth accidentally, i.e., what he says is true, but he cannot rationally justify his belief that it is true. (In our previous example, the boy could justify his claim, whereas the adult with the lucky guess could not.) (Another example: I believed that Simpson was guilty; it turned out he was in fact guilty; but I could not have proven that he was guilty; I could not have come up with compelling evidence for his guilt.)

The case differs for knowing how to do such and such. The fact that Bill rides a bicycle logically implies that he knows how to ride a bicycle. “Knowledge how” is demonstrated by the relevant behavior, knowing the way to Kansas City by actually taking you there, for example. Are there counter-examples to this?

Reflection and self-awareness: When I know that X, must I also know that I know? Is it possible to know something but not be aware that you know?
(I might have forgotten that I knew the solution to the puzzle.) Doesn’t the statement
“I know X” imply my awareness that I know X? (Ordinarily yes, but there can be exceptions.) (Does this apply only to propositional knowledge?)

Sometimes in retrospect we might say, “I knew all along that he was the perpetrator” meaning that I believed correctly that he was the guilty one although I couldn’t prove it to others. Here the “I knew” seems to just be a way of saying that I had a true belief (or made a lucky guess) at the time. It would be incorrect to interpret this to mean, ‘I knew such and such, but did not know that I knew it at the time.’

More likely, “I knew it along” is just a way of talking. I had it right all along, but couldn’t prove it. (Sometimes it might mean “I had a hunch.”)

Holding a true belief, by itself, is not sufficient for claiming knowledge in the case. For sometimes we hold true beliefs by accident or simply because we got this true belief from someone else, and never had any idea as to how the belief would be verified: the atomic weight of hydrogen, for example..

Yet most of the knowledge (viz. scientific knowledge) that most of us hold has been gotten from someone else. We certainly did not carry out the tests and verification to rationally justify the propositions at issue. For example, we claim to know the distance between the earth and the sun; but this ‘knowledge’ is something that we received from others. It is a justified, true belief, but the rational justification has been done by others. By a study of the relevant science, we can arrive at some idea as to the means of rational justification.

The American pragmatist, Richard Rorty, likely would argue that the concept of knowledge is a cultural concept. ‘Knowledge’ is culturally and historically determined. What we accept as knowledge is determined by our culture and historical period. (This opposes the positivistic, “scientific” viewpoint that scientific knowledge has universal application.) Specific beliefs that we accept as common knowledge may be culturally conditioned, and may differ from the way those beliefs are evaluated by another culture.

Can we say the same thing about the general concept of ‘knowledge’ itself? What about specific empirical or scientific propositions, such as that ‘at sea level water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit’?

A good attempt to define knowledge is to see it as realized when
a. one holds a true believe, and
b. is rationally justified in holding that belief.

In short, this purports to define knowledge as justified, true belief. But, as Edmund L. Gettier argued successfully, there are counter-examples which appear to refute this as an entirely adequate definition of ‘knowledge.’

How do we acquire knowledge?

Here is a start at an answer: we gain knowledge through experience; we acquire some of our knowledge ourselves; but much of what we “know” we get from others; for example, we become familiar with the work of scientists and with the accepted “findings” of the various sciences.

Education is a key to acquiring knowledge. The experience of living itself will also provide a person with much knowledge. We learn from experience by careful observation and correct inference from our observations.

Another stab at an answer: experience of the world (of living and doing things), rational inquiry and scientific investigation (use of the scientific method) are means by which we acquire knowledge;

(Maybe we should say: these are the means by which we justify our claims to knowledge. Acquisition and justification have to be distinguished.)

One problem is that many people mean by “knowledge” a conviction that they will not easily let go. We call this “subjective certainty.” For example, I may say that I “know” such and such in the sense that this is my belief and I cannot be easily dislodged. The “subject” here could be an individual, a group or organization, or even an entire culture. (We often find this type of thing in politics and religion. E.G., “I know that Christ is my savior.”)

However, epistemology is not a branch of psychology; and ‘knowing that such and such’ should not be defined as a mental state; for being in a particular mental state is not a sufficient condition for having knowledge. (It may also not be a necessary condition.) Hence, strong conviction or strong subjective certainty will not show that the subject has knowledge. (Knowledge requires the satisfaction of an objective condition.) To determine the presence or absence of knowledge, we must look to the world. There must be publicly verifiable evidence or valid inference, one that is rationally compelling.

Likewise, epistemology is not a branch of sociology or anthropology. As students of philosophy, our primary goal is not to describe what society or a particular culture regards as knowledge. (However, such knowledge may play an important role in our philosophical thesis. In addition, culture plays an important role: the concepts and language used to analyze knowledge are culturally based.)

(As students of epistemological philosophy, we focus on the conceptual problems related to knowledge and belief.)

There’s a sense in which a knowledge claim is similar to a claim of some ability. (Gilbert Ryle used this approach. ‘Knowledge that’ is explained in terms of ‘knowing how.’) If I claim to be able to run a marathon, but when the marathon run occurs I am barely able to finish one tenth of the marathon distance and cannot continue, most people would question, even deny, my claim to be able to run the marathon. Similarly, if I claim to know the way to Kansas City, and when I try to take you there I get us hopelessly lost, most people would deny that I really know how to get to Kansas City. Public evidence has shown that I really don’t possess the “know-how” that I claimed. Likewise, if I claim to know that the world will end in two weeks and the two-week period passes and nothing happens, most people would deny that I possessed this claimed ability to foretell a future event. I did not possess knowledge of the end of the world.

We could say, then, that possessing knowledge is a public matter and not a private thing. Certainly it is not merely a matter of being in a particular state of mind or having a specific, subjective experience. To prove my claim to knowledge I have to show something; e.g., show that my knowledge claim really is based on fact, or at least show good evidence or reasons in support of my knowledge claim. “I have to bring others into the game.”
(This is why we tend to dismiss claims to absolutely private knowledge as having any significance other than giving insight into the psyche of the person claiming the “special knowledge.”)

Often we are limited to knowledge by elimination of false candidates to knowledge. We may not have positive knowledge of AAA, but we know that BBB, CCC, DDD, etc. cannot be AAA, and we know that other candidates: EEE, FFF, GGG, and such are most probably not AAA. By such process of elimination we may come closer to knowing what AAA might be.

This applies to much of the method of the natural sciences. By eliminating false hypotheses and theories, we move closer to the neighborhood of scientific knowledge.

In the history of philosophy, the distinction between knowledge and mere opinion (belief) has occupied many philosophers, e.g. Plato, who required a special metaphysics to explain his distinction between knowledge and opinion.

Other famous figures in philosophy have defined ‘knowledge’ with logical certainty, of the sort found in mathematical proofs, e.g. Rene Descartes. [This is most likely another wrong turn in effort to define ‘knowledge,’ but instructive nevertheless.]

As the story is told, Descartes became weary of all the opinions and groundless ‘doctrine’ that masqueraded as knowledge; he proposed to identify genuine knowledge by doubting everything that could possibly be doubted; if at the end of this process of ‘hyperbolic doubt’ anything remained that could not be doubted, then he would be able to say that he had found genuine knowledge, that which was absolutely certain in the sense that it could not be doubted. He came down to the irreducible fact that he was doubting. Since even by doubting that he doubted he affirmed that he doubted, which in turn affirmed that he existed as a doubter, he affirmed that he existed as a thinking being, Thus, he came to his famous Cogito, Ergo Sum. That the subject exists as a thinking being is then supposed to be the foundation for genuine knowledge, affirmations that follow from the ‘cogito’ proposition; these supposedly have the same unassailable certainty as the Cogito.

Spinoza tried to establish genuine knowledge on a model of geometry. He proposed to start with a few axioms and theorems and, by logical deduction, build a system of metaphysics and ethics that would qualify as mathematically certain knowledge.

(See what Ruben Hersh, in his book What is Mathematics, Really? has to say about the assumption that this procedure correctly characterizes mathematics.)

A good part of the history of western philosophy has dealt with the subject of epistemology. We find this in the efforts of western philosophers to explain and understand the concept of ‘knowledge’, and the related concepts ‘belief’, ‘truth’, ‘perception’, ‘memory’ and such.

Some philosophers approach the problem of ‘knowledge’ by way of skepticism. They explore the concept of ‘knowledge’ as they attempt to respond to the skeptic’s challenge. The general skeptic claims that we cannot justifiably claim to know anything. Limited skeptics contend that we cannot justify many of our ordinary claims to knowledge. In responding to the skeptic, we have to deal with the question: What really counts as knowing something? Or what are the criteria for justifiable knowledge claims?

I have many beliefs and opinions as to how the world works and the role that humans play. Some of these are true; some likely false. Some would be classified as knowledge, some as mere “hunches” or “guesses” as to what is playing. Some of these beliefs represent my convictions and emotional commitment; some are mere opinions that I’m inclined to “try out” without any strong commitment. Most are beliefs and opinions borrowed from others.

D.W. Hamlyn reminds us that

“..many kinds of knowledge … presuppose that the person who knows has certain relevant kinds of understanding, certain ideas or concepts, which form the basis of knowledge and in terms of which the knowledge is to be formulated. Knowledge that something or other is the case can normally be formulated in propositions.”


“..knowledge presupposes..that the person who knows has the relevant concepts or ideas, concepts that might conceivably be formulated in verbal terms so that the knowledge could be expressed in a proposition or propositions. . . one who knows that P is F must have at his disposal all the materials for knowledge that p, in that he must have the relevant concepts. To have a concept of F is to know what it is for something to be F. Thus, knowledge of facts presupposes other forms of knowledge, those involved in having concepts; and whether or not a person has these prior forms of knowledge may itself emerge in what things of a factual kind he can be said to know, perhaps, to which propositions he will assent.

(From Hamlyn’s The Theory of Knowledge)

If I claim to know that our government is a republican form of democracy, I must believe this, and if I believe it, I must have some understanding of the relevant concepts, e.g. ‘government’ and ‘republican democracy.’ We have to presuppose a minimal understanding of the meaning and a basic ability to correctly apply the relevant concepts.

We also need some understanding of what it means to say that certain concepts apply and to say that the relevant propositions are true. For example, that the concept of ‘republican democracy’ applies to the U.S. government; and that the proposition ‘the U.S. government is a republican form of government’ is true.

It is fair to say that any claim to knowledge presupposes a complex network of concepts and ideas, social conventions and agreements, etc. Can we then say that knowledge is a social, linguistic phenomenon?

Must we allow for this possibility: I have knowledge that only I know and which cannot be communicated to anyone else? Is there such a thing as absolutely private knowledge which is not expressible by any public language, thus not expressible in propositions that can be understood and evaluated by other persons? Mystics sometimes claim to have such knowledge. But we don’t have to cite mysticism; a simple secret that I don’t share with anyone would seem to answer the first questions above.

But philosophers like L. Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle give us reasons for doubting, if not outright denying, that private knowledge is possible.
(This will be left for a sequel to these remarks and observations.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *