What is Knowledge?
As its name suggests, the Theory of Knowledge course deals with knowledge. The words "to know" and "knowledge" are every-day words, but there also is a branch of philosophy, called epistemology (from Gk. epistémé, knowledge + logos,) which addresses – more carefully than we tend to do in every-day life – the questions of what knowledge is and how we get it. However, the IB's Theory of Knowledge course is not intended to be a philosophy course: on the one hand, it does not go into such great philosophical depth, but on the other, it does cover a rather wider range of approaches. In fact, there are teachers of the course (including, I believe, the main person behind its introduction as part of the IB diploma) who would prefer it to be called "Ways of Understanding."
To put it briefly, what the course is about is what counts as knowledge in different spheres of human activity: knowing a mathematical theorem is completely different from knowing the way to London, for instance, or knowing that the earth is round, or that Shakespeare's Hamlet is a great play. And so I also have to do very different things if I am asked to show or explain or justify my knowledge.
To begin with we need to distinguish different uses of the word "knowledge" and to agree when we can say that somebody knows something or has a certain knowledge.
Often there will be no single right answer: it is in any case the thinking and discussion that are of value.)
|I must know that ...||I must know how to ...|
Since I know (= am acquainted with) the roads in this area, I know how to get from here to Cardiff, and so I know that I have to take the A48 in Cowbridge.
Propositions are capable of being true or false: this distinguishes them from promises, questions, commands, proposals, etc., (which like propositions are expressed in sentences.)
|d.||Religious Faith||e.||Natural science||f.||Other people's thinking|
|g.||Art/Literature||h.||History||i.||Driving a car|
|Attempt 1:||If A knows that p, then A must certainly have a certain mental state, namely that he believes that p.|
|... but this is obviously not enough for us to say that A knows that p.|
Consider the following passage from one of the dialogues by Plato (427-347 B.C.) Here Plato has Socrates, using his characteristic form of argumentation, attack Gorgias's defence of the public orators' sophistry:
(There will be readings like this throughout the course, to help make certain points, and to include different 'voices'. A good way to use them in class is for volunteers, but not always the same students, to read them aloud.)
Socrates: Now take this point. You would agree that there is such a thing as 'knowing'? Gorgias: Certainly. Socrates: And such a thing as 'believing'? Gorgias: Yes. Socrates: Well, do you think that knowing and believing are the same thing, or is there a difference between knowledge and belief? Gorgias: I should say that there is a difference. Socrates: Quite right; and you can prove it like this. If you were asked whether there are such things as true and false beliefs, you would say that there are, no doubt. Gorgias: Yes. Socrates: But are there such things as true and false knowledge? Gorgias: Certainly not. Socrates: Then knowledge and belief are certainly not the same thing. Gorgias: True. Socrates: Yet men who believe may just as properly be called convinced as men who know? Gorgias: Yes. Socrates: May we then posit the existence of two kinds of conviction, one which gives knowledge and one which gives belief without knowledge? Gorgias: Certainly. Socrates: Now which kind of conviction about right and wrong is created by oratory in courts of law and elsewhere, the kind which engenders knowledge, or the kind which engenders belief without knowledge? Gorgias: The kind which engenders belief, obviously. Socrates: So it appears that the conviction which oratory produces about right and wrong is of the kind which is followed by belief, not the kind which arises from teaching? Gorgias: Yes. Socrates: And the orator does not teach juries and other bodies about right and wrong – he merely persuades them; he could hardly teach so large a number of people matters of such importance in a short time. Gorgias: Of course he couldn't.Plato, Gorgias, § 454.
|Attempt 2:||Thus knowledge that p requires not only the belief that p, but also that p be a true proposition.|
|... but this is not yet enough for us to say that A knows that p.|
|Attempt 3:||Thus knowledge that p requires not only the belief that p, and that p be true, but that the knower, A, accepts that p for the purpose of attaining truth and avoiding error.|
|... but this is still not enough for us to say that A knows that p.|
|Attempt 4:||Thus knowledge that p requires not only that the knower, A, accepts that p, and that p be true, but also that A be justified in his acceptance of p.|
|... but even this is not yet enough for us to say that A knows that p.|
Thus, finally, knowledge that p requires
This kind of analysis, by the way, is what much philosophical activity consists of, for a main purpose of philosophy – and of the Theory of Knowledge course – is to help develop 'clean', careful thinking.
This section is a rather more abstractly philosophical, but nothing in the subsequent course depends on it.
"A true proposition is a proposition which says that things are such and such, and things are just such and such" (Alfred Tarski) – i.e. for a proposition to be true it must correspond to or match a state of affairs in the world. This is clearly the common-sense view.
According to this view, a proposition is true if it is consistent with all the other propositions we hold true.
The following question arises of course: Without a basis, how can such a concept of truth ever get off the ground? There are clearly many sets of propositions, each one perfectly consisten within itself. So are we to consider each one of these sets as a set of true propositions? But if we have to accept some propositions as true so that others are true by virtue of being consistent with them, on what basis are those propositions true? However, rather than being a problem for the Coherence Theory, this turns out to be its appeal in many quarters.
For while the Correspondence Theory is the common-sense view, it does, to be useful, depend on the assumption that we can have direct access to the world as it is. But this assumption is, according to many thinkers, such as the phenomologists, (Edmund Husserl) not valid. According to these thinkers, the closest we can come to the real world are statements of direct observations. And this is where the Coherence Theory comes into its own: we accept a proposition as true if it is consistent with all the other propositions we hold true, especially those propositions that express direct observations. The set of true propostions can then be thought of as the 'set of best fit', with certain kinds of propositions – which could, but don't need to, express observations – holding a privileged status.
This is a method of philosophy in which the meaning of an idea is to be found in an examination of the consequences to which it would lead (C.S. Peirce,) and the truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results and by its practical outcome – i.e. by its consequences rather than its origin. Thus pragmatists hold that truth is not absolute, but modified as discoveries are made, and that it is therefore relative to time and place and purpose of inquiry.
"The pragmatic method ... is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle" (William James, Pragmatism, 1907.)
The following passage, for example, is from the beginning of the first of Réné Descartes's famous Meditations, 1641:
It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was all I had constructed on this basis; ... All that at the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to any thing by which we have once been deceived. ... At the same time I must remember that I am ... in the habit of sleeping, and in my dreams representing to myself the same things or sometimes even less probable things, than do those who are insane in their waking moments.And according to 'perspectivism' and 'phenomenology' there is no one truth or reality, there is (or: we can have) nothing other than our different outlooks:
Our new 'infinity'. – How far the perspectivist character of reality extends, and even whether it has any other character ... – that can ... not be settled even by the most conscientious and painstaking analysis and self-examination of the intellect. ... But we are today, I think, at least far from the ludicrous arrogance of ruling from our corner that it is only from this corner that one can have perspectives.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882.
The existence of the world on the basis of the natural evidence of experience cannot be an indisputable fact any more, but must itself be only a phenomenon of actuality. ... this method of 'bracketing' the objective world, then, does not confront us with a nothing ...: what I gain by it is my immediate life with all its immediate experiences and its immediate intentionalities, the universe of phenomena.More recently, the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1866-84,) making explicit reference to Nietzsche, has taken the view that instead of trying to give and use a definition of absolute or universal truth, we can only study how the concept of truth has been and is being used in particular societies.Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, 1931.
Each society has its regime of truth, its "general politics" of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.Power/Knowledge, 1980.
|a.||in the modern world,||b.||in the Middle Ages,||c.||in ancient Greece ?|
In Eastern philosophy, too, knowledge is a mental state, a matter of truth and something to strive for. But it is less a specific belief or ability than a personal state of being, arrived at by certain observances. This conception of knowledge is largely derived from Buddhism, of which Zen is one form.
The traditional training given by Zen teachers was intended to teach novices 'to know'. The training might be physical or it might be mental, but it must be finally validated in the inner consciousness of the learner. Zen training of the fencer illustrates this well. The fencer, of course, has to learn and constantly practise the proper sword thrusts, but his proficiency in these belongs in the field of mere 'competence.' In addition he must learn to be 'muga'. He is made to stand first on the level floor, concentrating on the few inches of surface which support his body. This tiny surface of standing room is gradually raised till he has learned to stand as easily on a four-foot pillar as in a court yard. When he is perfectly secure on that pillar, he 'knows'. His mind will no longer betray him by dizziness and fear of falling. ...To understand this kind of knowledge it may help to start with the following question: Why did Japanese samurai warriors (at least in the movies ...) often go to a monastery to improve their fighting skills? What could the monks teach them? The answer is that to be successful as a fighter, one needs to empty one's mind: by the time one has consciously thought about one's opponent's next move and how to react, it will often be too late already! The monks teach different observances that enable one to practise entering that state of mind – the last character of the Japanese words for both the tea ceremony, Cha-Dou, and calligraphy, Sho-Dou, means "the way": they are ways to enlightenment, to knowledge.
The teacher might hold discussions with the novice, but he did not lead him gently into a new intellectual realm. ... The most favored technique for inducing the novice's desperate attempt 'to know' were the 'koan', literally 'the problems'. There are said to be seventeen hundred of these problems, and the anecdote books make nothing of a man's devoting seven years to the solution of one of them. They are not meant to have rational solutions. One is 'To conceive the clapping of one hand.' Another is 'To feel the yearning for one's mother before one's own conception.' ... In Japan they are a most important part of training in 'expertness'. Zen handbooks treat them with extreme seriousness. 'Koan enshrine the dilemma of life.' A man who is pondering one, they say, reaches an impasse like 'a pursued rat that has run up a blind tunnel,' ... he is 'a mosquito trying to bite a lump of iron.' ... Finally the screen of his 'observing self' between his mind and his problem falls aside; with the swiftness of a flash of lightning the two – mind and problem – come to terms. He 'knows'.
there is a general pattern in these revelations. ... What they learn, they say, is in the famous Chinese phrase, that they 'were looking for an ox when they were riding on one.' ... They learn, that is, in Occidental phraseology, that both horns of the dilemma are irrelevant. They learn that goals may be attained with present means if the eyes of the sprit are opened.Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1946.
(It is an insight supported by recent psychology and brain-research, that our automatic, unconscious mind works more quickly than the conscious mind, and that it determines more of our decisions than we can see or may be prepared to admit, with the conscious mind often being reduced to providing rationalisations for foregone conclusions – cf. Kahnemann Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2012.)
Apart from the koan mentioned above, Buddhist masters also use stories, often about a master and a pupil, to show what kind of knowledge we should not be seeking. Here are two such:
One day the pupil once again beseeched the master to tell him what he needed to know to finally achieve enlightenment. The master turned to him and calmly asked him: "Have you washed your rice bowl?"
One day the master and the pupil were sitting on the veranda in the early evening, enjoying a cup of tea. When the pupil, again, asked the master to explain about enlightenment, the master just raised his arm and pointed at the moon, which could be seen through the branches of a tree. "Ah, I finally get it," the pupil exclaimed excitedly. "The truth is like the light of the moon, and reality is like the branches of the tree which hide the truth from us." The master remained silent for a long time, but kept pointing at the same place in the sky. After some time he said: "Look again." In the meantime the moon had risen further.
Now, while it is easy to see what is meant by Areas of Knowledge, there seem to be two different kinds of things that could be called Ways of Knowing, depending on which one of two question is being asked.
|How do I (= the individual knower) know?|
|my sources of knowledge||through education|
|from teachers, trusted experts, books, the internet, ...|
|my means of gaining knowledge||perception|
Note that (pace the IB) emotion may not be a way of gaining propositional knowledge.
|reasoning (one form of which is logic)|
|intuition: something to discuss?|
|How do we (= mankind) know?|
|natural sciences||the hypothetico-deductive method, based on empirical evidence|
Note that each Area of Knowledge has a characteristic Way of Knowing.
|mathematics||proving discovered/invented theorems (in a mathematical theory)|
|social sciences||similar to the method in the natural sciences, but ...|
|history||interpretation: constructing stories making sense of the empirical evidence|
|ethics, aesthetics||value-judgments, depending on experience, society, period, ...|
|other (people's) minds||interpretation: attributing motives (beliefs and desires) on the basis of another person's behaviour, actions, utterances, ...|
The ThoK-course can then be thought of as a critical investigation of these different Ways of Knowing, and in particular the limitations and problems of each, so that students should for example become aware
Some other aspects of the concept of knowledge that could/should be addressed – if in some cases only briefly – in a ThoK-course, and may need to be for students to be able to write essays on some of the prescribed titles, are:
|the knower's perspective||knowledge is always knowledge from a certain (religious or other) basic outlook or worldview|
|different conceptions of knowledge||Western (which is what the ThoK-course mostly deals with)|
|African, aboriginal (?)|
|different kinds of knowledge||knowledge that ... (propositional knowledge, which is what the ThoK-course mostly deals with)|
|knowledge how to ... (perform an action)|
|knowledge of ... (knowledge by acquaintance)|
|'archealogy' of knowledge||alchemy → chemistry, astrology → astronomy|
|creation myths → history|
|customs → moral judgments (?)|
|uses/applications of knowledge||"knowledge is power"|
|science v. technology, moral judgments v. a country's laws|
In each individual subject you learn what is true and how to argue in that particular area, and thereby you gain knowledge in that subject and the ability to support it, (and you become able to answer questions in exams.) In ThoK we ask questions about subject areas, and in particular we try to establish what constitutes a valid justification of knowledge in each one. (This last question is of course one which is, or should be, addressed within each course as well.)
In a science subject you do experiments, in ThoK we discuss why experiments play a role in science, but don't in mathematics, say.
|a.||Language A (literature)||b.||History||c.||Mathematics|
|d.||Language B (a foreign language)||e.||Economics||f.||Music|
While epistemology is the theory of knowledge, metaphysics (C16, from Lat. from Gk. ta meta ta phusica, the things after the Physics-section in Aristotle's treatment) is the theory of reality. These have often competed for primacy in philosophy.
Imagine a machine that could give you any experience (or sequence of experiences) you might desire. When connected to this experience machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things, how they feel 'from the inside.' You can program your experiences for tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or even for the rest of your life. ... Would you choose to do this for the rest of your life?
The question of whether to plug in to this experience machine is a question of value. (It differs from two related questions: an epistemological one – Can you know you are not already plugged in? – and a metaphysical one – Don't the machine experiences constitute a real world?)Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, 1989. pp. 104f.
Attempt 1, etc.:
Initially, many people seem to think that "to know" means no more than "[1. ...] to be or feel certain of the truth or accuracy of (a fact, etc.)" (Collins English Dictionary, 1991,) i.e. that knowledge is a strong form of belief. The sequence of attempts should help students to see that more is required.
Before reading the passage from Plato, with two students taking the two parts, introduce the beginning of (Western) philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – and explain the Socratic method of argument used here.
In Akira Kurosawa's remarkable film Rashomon (1950) a certain sequence of events, as a result of which a samurai has been killed and his wife raped, is described before a court (in the place of which we, the audience, are sitting) by the four people who were in some way involved: the attacker, the wife, the dead man, (whose spirit speaks through a medium,) and a hidden observer. But their stories, told one after the other by being shown to us on screen, differ very fundamentally on what actually happened – and the film does not resolve the conflict between the different stories.
More from Michel Foucault:
In societies like ours, the 'political economy' of truth is characterized by five important traits. 'Truth' is centered on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement (the demand for truth, as much for economic production as for political power); it is the object, under diverse forms, of immense diffusion and consumption (circulating through apparatuses of education and information whose extent is relatively broad in the social body, notwithstanding certain strict limitations); it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant of not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media); lastly, it is the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation ('ideological' struggles). ...Exercise 4.3.:
'Truth' is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production , regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.
'Truth' is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it. A 'regime' of truth.
This regime is not merely ideological or superstructural; it was a condition of the formation and development of capitalism."Truth and Power", 1980.
Suzuki, the great authority on Zen Buddhism, describes muga as 'ecstasy with no sense of I am doing it,' 'effortlessness.' The 'observing self' is eliminated; a man 'loses himself,' that is, he ceases to be a spectator of his acts. Suzuki says: 'With the awaking of consciousness, the will is split into two: ... actor and observer. Conflict is inevitable, for the actor(-self) wants to be free from the limitations' of the observer-self. Therefore in Enlightenment the disciple discovers that there is no observer-self, 'no soul entity as an unknown or unknowable quantity.' Nothing remains but the goal and the act that accomplishes it.Questions 5.1.:Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1946.
Réné Descartes, "Meditations", in Melvin Rader (ed.,) The Enduring Questions, 1969. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 248-265.
Michel Foucault, "Truth and Power", 1980, in Paul Rabinow (ed.,) The Foucault Reader, 1984. Penguin Books. pp. 51-75.
William James, "What Pragmatism Means", in Melvin Rader (ed.,) The Enduring Questions, 1969. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 111-119.
Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge, 1990. Routledge, London. Especially pp. 1-19.
Brian Street (ed.,) Theory of Knowledge: Teachers' Guide (Final Proof), 1989. International Baccalaureate. Sections I. and II.5.)