What Do We Know About Knowledge?

This column published as What Do We Know About Knowledge? in LearnScope online Mar 11, 2003. [Link] Type: C - Publications in Trade Journals [List all Publications]

It is astonishing, linguist Noam Chomsky tells us, that we know anything at all. Our access to the external world is limited to the five senses and our knowledge of the world is vastly underdetermined by the information we derive from those senses. From the same body of evidence we can derive any number of theories, which is why we see God, witchcraft, and thermodynamics all called upon to explain the same phenomena.

On the other hand, we are provided with a wealth of information through our senses, probably too much. In order to make sense of any of it at all, in order to even begin theorizing about the nature of the world, we need to disregard most of what we see, touch or feel. We need some means of paying attention to the matter at hand, of heeding objects and disregarding shadows.

What is knowledge? Some people try to characterize it as a type of belief that is sufficiently justified. Others say that knowledge exists when our beliefs correspond with reality. Still others characterize knowledge as continually reinforced and habitual states of mind. A pragmatic definition depicts knowledge as the set of beliefs that guide us toward useful actions.

Though there are many definitions of knowledge, what they have in common is that what people think of as ?knowledge? is the product of producing order out of the chaos of experience. And just as there are many types of order ? a web of truth, a physical world, a balanced mind, a series of actions ? so also are there many types of knowledge. What counts as knowledge depends on the type of order we are seeking to create, and this in turn depends on a host of desires and needs.

No bit of knowledge, then, stands alone and in isolation from the rest. The accumulation of knowledge is fundamentally different from the accumulation of grains of sand, where each item could be acquired and stored as though it were a unique and distinct entity. In any form of knowledge, there is a process not only of acquiring some new experience, but also of assessing it and placing it in its proper location in the larger system. Knowledge exists in what Quine would call a ?web of belief,? a network of related ideas, each referring to and depending on the rest for their meaning, truth and value.

To understand the generation of knowledge it is necessary to understand each of these three processes: acquisition, assessment and integration. Though each may be described separately, they occur in tandem and with respect to each other. An experience that cannot be integrated will not be acquired; an experience that cannot be acquired will not be assessed. To generate or acquire knowledge, all three mechanisms must be functioning at the same time and with the same objective.

Consider what happens when some new phenomenon is presented to the senses ? a new visual experience, for example, or a string of words spoken in a classroom. Assuming that the person is attentive, then some attempt will be made to make sense of the phenomenon. Visually, a person will try to discern what they are seeing; as Land demonstrated, they will try to identify edges and create representations of objects in their mind. When listening, a person will attempt to identify gaps, changes in pitch or tone.

This initial process of filtering and identification occurs subconsciously, at a neural level. The results of this process are presented as candidates for further acquisition and integration. Judgements are made: is it a duck, or a rabbit? Is it a young girl or an old maid? Are the lines parallel or concave? Did the person say Lizst or lisp? Acquisition is a process of recognition; recognition is a process of assessment and integration. Even at the earliest stages of perception, a complex mental process is happening, and yet, a process so simple it can be accomplished by children and cats.

Our recognition of information depends on our context and circumstances. In a sense, whether something will even count as a new bit of knowledge depends on what we are trying to do. In a forest, where our perceptions are based on the need to adapt and survive, every second perception, it seems, resembles a bear. The world is divided, cognitively, into bear and non-bear objects. More cynically, it could be said that a similar sort of pre-processing occurs in the classroom. Will the teacher?s utterance be on the test? The world of teacher-utterances is divided into test and non-test objects, and further processing proceeds on that basis.

Bit by bit, sensory experiences are acquired and integrated into a larger body of information. Gradually, a mental picture begins to emerge, a sense of understanding of a system as a whole. In some cases, this sense of understanding remains subconscious and implicit; it is what Polanyi would call ?tacit knowledge.? In contrast, other aspects of this sense of understanding are explicitly codified in a representational system. We begin to allow sounds and shapes to stand for objects and describe what we have experienced in words. We begin to quantify our experiences, finding sets of related objects, noting repeated occurrences.

What we think of as ?knowledge? is what we get when our explicit representations ? our descriptions of objects, our placing of objects in categories, our counting of objects, our projection of relations between objects ? accord with both our tacit knowledge and with the ongoing and now much more comprehensible array of experiences presented to us on an ongoing basis.

A sentence like ?Paris is the capital of France? is like the tip of an iceberg, the visible manifestation of a complex and inter-related set of assumptions lying beneath the surface. The meanings of the words ?Paris? and ?capital,? the classification of these entities as cities and countries, the comprehension of what it means for a country to have a capital: all this the end result of a million inferences, of endless acquisition, evaluation and integration.

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