What is Knowledge?

What is Knowledge: How do I know ‘x’? How do we know ‘y’?

“It is tempting to explain the plurality of good answers to knowledge questions in terms of a type of truth relativism: “it is just a matter of perspective”. A more likely explanation is that different interpretations of key ideas account for the different conclusions or that the weighting of different factors in the argument differs.” TOK Guide 2015

TOKQuestionIn order to gain a better understanding of what we mean by knowledge, it is necessary to grasp anew the basic concepts which we use every day and which we think we understand. We need to understand what the concepts really mean. Our understanding of the concepts will determine our disposition or orientation, how our ways of knowing will operate towards the objects of our concern in each of the areas or domains of knowledge. From this disposition will arise the particular methodology within which we gain what we have come to call knowledge.

These concepts arise and have risen from our understanding of what we believe truth and language to be; and these understandings of truth and language, in turn, determine what the framework for what we call knowledge is to be in each area of knowledge.

When we think about the areas of knowledge, our shared knowledge, we must try to understand how the objects that are our concern in each of these domains of knowledge become visible to us as what they are. This “becoming visible” is what we have come to call “cognition”. How the things show themselves and how we speak about them to each other is what we mean by our ‘personal’ and ‘shared knowledge’. The difficulty for us is that these objects which we view in the areas of knowledge come into view within a pre-determined perspective and within a pre-determined manner/mode of questioning. The purpose of Theory of Knowledge is to lead you to a grasping and understanding of the questioning within your own specific areas of interest and to determine what the real questions are in those areas that you happen to be interested in.

We are our ‘shared knowledge’. That which has come to be called knowledge in the West (and the IB Diploma is a Western education) rests on the foundations of Greek and Latin philosophy and does so to such an extent that we, for the most part, are no longer conscious of it. These foundations have become so obvious to us that we think we have nothing further to learn from the Greeks or from the ancients. To understand our shared knowledge is to understand ourselves, but we cannot have a true knowledge of ourselves if this knowledge is held in obscurity. The goal of this striving for an understanding of ourselves is so that we can experience what we ought to be as human beings. What the IB has concluded is that it is to realize the outcomes of the IB Learner Profile. But from where do these outcomes themselves arise?

Five Types of Knowledge:

In the West, the ancient Greeks distinguished between five types of knowledge: 1. Knowledge as wisdom or knowledge of the first things and of the whole (sophia), and this is sometimes called ‘divine knowledge’ or ‘understanding’; 2. Theoretical knowledge (episteme or what the Greeks, Aristotle in particular, referred to as ‘science’); 3. Expertise or ‘know how’ (techne); 4. Common sense or that knowledge which pertains to one’s own self-interest; circumspection or insight into one’s own self-interest (phronesis); and 5. Intellectual knowledge (nous or noetic knowledge, intelligence: that knowledge which is the result of experience or perceptual discernment). In our Theory of Knowledge course, all these types of knowledge come into play in one form or another. The types of knowledge are not isolated but involve one or more of the other types of knowledge depending upon what is being considered and how what is being considered is disclosed or known to us through our various ways of knowing or through our cognitions.

In previous years in TOK, the description of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ related to intellectual or noetic knowledge and was derived from Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus which is a dialogue focusing on the questioning of how sense perception is a way of knowing i.e. what has come to be called empiricism in later centuries. (Empiricism comes from the word emperia or what we translate as “experience”.) Perhaps this definition of knowledge was chosen because of our emphasis on sense perception or ‘empiricism’ as a way of knowing given to us from the logical positivism that dominates American and British institutions of higher learning today. Plato’s Theaetetus is but one part of a trilogy of dialogues: the Sophist and the Statesman comprise the other two. The three dialogues and their questions must be viewed as a whole.

We wish to gain a wider view of what knowledge means and what it means to possess or ‘grasp’ knowledge than this single understanding of ‘justified true belief’ and to get a better understanding of what are the Greek roots of our ‘shared knowledge’.

Sophia as Knowledge:

  1. Wisdom or sophia is knowledge of the ‘first things’, the beginnings of things and, thus, knowledge of the whole. In Plato’s allegory of the Cave the first “thing” (although it is not a ‘thing’ in any sense), and that which is responsible for all things, is the Good or agathon. This is represented in the allegory through the metaphor of the Sun. The philosopher is a philo sophia, a friend or a lover of wisdom. So the philosopher, according to Plato, is a lover or friend of the Good, or of the divine, or the first things. To be a friend or lover of someone or something requires that one first “know” that person or thing; it is not coincidence that in ancient times to have sex with someone was “to know” that person. The Good in Plato’s allegory is represented as that towards which all things, including human beings, strive; for in their striving they hope for a completeness or ‘that for which they are fitted’, their essence. We call this completeness “perfection”.

In this view, all things have a final purpose (telos in Greek) and that purpose is the achievement of their completeness or their essence, what they are. An acorn strives to become an oak, for it is in being an oak that it achieves its essence, its completeness, its perfection. The acorn cannot become an oak unless it is ‘nurtured’ with water and light; water and light do not make an oak but they do ‘help the acorn along’ to become an oak. The essence of some thing arrives at the last and, yet, is paradoxically present in its beginning. The Greeks had a saying: “The future comes to meet us from behind”. What they meant by that saying is that the future’s flowering is its realization of its essence which was contained in its past. For example, our technological gadgets, our hand phones and computers, are the completedness of the technological viewing which is their essence. The essence of technology is nothing technological.

For we moderns, there is no final purpose to things so there is no ‘wisdom’ to be obtained as understood by the Greeks. “Things” have no essence. The future will be what we make it to be; the world and the things about us are to be looked upon and changed to meet our needs; we human beings will determine the essence of some thing as good for our purposes. Nothing is good in and of itself. Our closest approximation to wisdom is a combination of the knowledge provided in ‘techne’ and our knowledge of ‘common sense’ which we achieve through experience or praxis, action. The modern French philosopher, J. P. Sartre, stated: “Existence precedes essence”; that is, what some thing will be will be determined by ‘choices’ human beings make in the present that will lead to outcomes for which they, as a human being, are responsible. This is why Sartre’s existentialism has been called a ‘humanism’ for its focus is entirely on human beings.

For the ancients, the person of wisdom, the ‘wise’ person, has knowledge of the Good as that which occasions or is responsible for the things that we experience in this world and that towards which he or she must strive. He or she has attained this knowledge through the theoretical which is a two-fold way of ‘looking’ upon things. More will be said below about the theoretical and its manner of ‘viewing’ or ‘looking upon’ and ‘being looked upon’. For the Greeks, the completeness or perfection of a human being is to contemplate the whole of things (the ‘first’ things) through the theoretical viewing, and to live well in communities (using phronesis or ‘common sense’) based on this knowledge of the first things which gives us knowledge of what we, as human beings, are ‘fitted for’. For the Greeks, the human being is zoon logon echon: the animal possessing language or, perhaps, the animal possessed by language. More will be said later about the importance of language as a way of knowing in defining what the essence of human being is.

You will notice that in the allegory of Plato, the philosopher is required to return to the Cave even though it is not his wish to do so. He would prefer to simply ‘look upon’ the Good. This returning is prescribed by the limit placed on human beings by the Good. It is the Good which delimits/defines and provides the limits for what human beings are fitted. Human beings are mortal and limited; the Good is immortal and eternal. The philosopher cannot be a monk or a hermit even though the philosopher renounces all ‘practical’ goals and particular goods. He or she is required to be a participant in the society of which they are a member. Wisdom is a curious or ambiguous combination of theoretical and practical knowledge for the ancients. We shall have to try to sort out this ambiguity as we go along our path to thinking about knowledge.

To the wise person, what we understand as evil is not the opposite of good, but the absence or deprivation of the good. A person who is not a good or virtuous person (arête in Greek is virtue and we have translated this word as ‘excellence’; agathos is “the good person”) is not capable of sophia. Metaphorically and literally, this is understood as the absence of light or the choice of refusing to see the light for what it is (the limit or that which delimits and defines) and choosing its opposite instead; we could even say that our modern world is a denial of the light as light. We will later discuss how this relates to human freedom. Macbeth is a play which illustrates most beautifully the principles elucidated here; but all tragedies involve this inability or refusal to perceive the light as it is given in one form or another.

It should be noted that it is the light which first ‘uncovers’ the things and allows the things to be ‘seen’ and, thus, known. “Uncoveredness” or disclosure is for the Greeks aletheia which has been traditionally translated as truth. What the truth is conceived to be is prior to theory and the theory is prior to the practice. When we deny truth as ‘uncoveredness’, we likewise deny what was understood as the ‘theoretical’ for the ancients; and we transform the theoretical to another understanding of what it once was. For the ancient Greeks, if they could see us, we would be viewed as a tragic people.

Theory as Knowledge:

  1. Theoretical knowledge comes from a complex number of ideas. On the one hand, théa means ‘look’, ‘sight’ and hora means ‘to see’, ‘to bring to sight’. Thea as ‘sight’ is that which allows the look of something to be seen and is connected to eidos (form) which is the ‘outward appearance’ of some thing. For Plato, the eidos is eternal or permanent; the theoretical looks upon the permanent things, upon their essence. The ‘treeness’ of a particular tree is that which is present and permanent in all trees and allows us to see the tree as a tree. The theoretical person is the one who looks upon something as it shows itself, who sees what is given to see. From this word comes our word “theatre”, and the theoros is the spectator who goes to the great festivals and dramas to ‘see’ and ‘to be seen’.

The other complex of ideas associated with theoretical is that of the root theo which is to look upon the divine, to look upon the eternal things. For the Greeks, however, this looking was not one way: the theoretical was also how the divine looked upon us so that we are given a sight of the eternal things, or the first things (archai), and this giving of the sight of the divine was a ‘gift’. So, for the Greeks, the theoretical is both the god’s looking upon us, which comes first, and our response to that look (theo=divine, horao=the disclosive looking back). The proper response on our part was, initially, a contemplative, pious, thankful ‘looking back’ in response to the god’s look upon us. To be a spectator at the theatre for a Greek was to have both the god looking upon them and their response to the god’s looking; to be a participant or spectator at the Greek theatre was to take part in a religious activity similar to our participation and attitudes when we go into our churches, temples or mosques. There were no ‘fourth walls’ in the Greek theatre. The whole conception of a ‘fourth wall’ in theatre may, indeed, be a product of modern fantasy.

The connection between the Greek understanding of the theoretical and the modern understanding is that in the modern the theory encompasses the first principles, the first things, which determine the procedures and experiments or experience of the things that are, the re-search; this is what the Greeks understood as techne.  For us, the dominant first principle is the principle of reason. The things are required to ‘come to light’, to ‘come to sight’, within the principle of reason which establishes the validity of the other first principles e.g. the principle of contradiction, etc. The great achievement of quantum physics, for instance, is the discovery that things don’t quite come to ‘sight’ in the manner in which we expected them to under this manner of viewing.

Techne as Knowledge:

  1. Techne as understood by the Greeks is the manner in which human beings accomplish practical tasks. Techne as knowledge is a combination of the theoretical, the practical or phronesis, and the intellectual or the noetic, what we understand as “intelligence”. Techne is not the application of some more basic knowledge but is itself the most basic knowledge, namely, the understanding of what it means to be at all and it includes both the arts and the sciences. But techne is a “human-centred” knowledge or ‘know-how’, or so we have come to believe from the traditions of our shared knowledge. Perhaps the Greeks understood techne as something different…

For example, science is but one application of modern technology or techne. Science is the re-search motivated by the self-disclosure of the essence of beings/things as orderable through calculation. That is, in our seeing or viewing (our theory), the things of the world (including ourselves) present themselves to us as something which can only be understood (and are only allowed to be understood) as calculable and orderable. Science presupposes this understanding of the Being of beings, how beings are, what their essence is, and so science presupposes modern technology or techne, which in itself is nothing other than the theory of beings/things as essentially calculable. In turn, science itself can be applied, and that application issues in a certain sophisticated manipulation of beings, which is “technology” in the usual sense as we understand it, namely, “the mechanical ordering of beings”. From where does this theory of beings as orderable through calculation arise? How does this theory or manner of seeing lead to modern science and to modern, high-tech machinations?

Modern technology is the theory, the viewing, that arises when human beings no longer experience themselves as ‘the looked upon’. Human beings become the ‘subjects’ and the world and its beings are regarded as ‘objects’. In the West, the view of Nature and Being that was present in Judaism and Christianity was, in part, responsible for this change (although in the Western Bible there is no word for what we could possibly understand as Nature). More shall be said about this very difficult and complex subject in Religious Knowledge Systems as an area of knowledge. For the moment, suffice it to say that when human beings made the decision to attempt to control and commandeer necessity and chance (Nature), then the oblivion of eternity, the disappearance of the gods, followed.

Common Sense as Knowledge:

  1. Phronesis or “common sense”/”practical knowledge” is defined by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, in Book VI chapter 5 of his Nichomachean Ethics as belonging to the human being who “can deliberate appropriately” over “that which is good (full and perfect) which is, in addition, good for himself”. The object of knowledge or what is known can be something else like that of techne, but its relation is to the deliberator or thinker himself (I believe the term we use unthinkingly today for this is ‘subjective’). In contrast, the deliberation or thinking of techne relates or contributes to the production of something else either for oneself or for another and aims at a perfection that is not possible in “phronetic” or practical knowledge. There are no perfect or complete actions. The aim of techne is the production of, say, a house or a gadget and the search is for the ‘perfect house’ or the perfect technological gadget. There is no such thing as the perfect or complete action.

The primary distinction between the ancient understanding and the modern understanding of what a “practical” human being is is that for Aristotle, the excellence or completeness to be arrived at for the “practical” human being is the right and proper way to be a human being. For Aristotle, ethics is action, not theory. The goal was sophrosyne or knowledge of the whole of practical action. This has become understood as ‘balanced’ in our ‘shared knowledge’ and our IB Learner Profile attributes. This sophrosyne is the deliberation or reflection prior to what is to be achieved in action. Proper action requires both self-knowledge and knowledge of one’s limits.

We see an example of false “phronetic” deliberation illustrated in Macbeth Act 1 sc. vii in Macbeth’s “If it t’were done when ‘tis done…” speech. Macbeth is lost in his calculations of the costs and benefits of his proposed action (the killing of King Duncan) rather than in his deliberations of the source or ground of the action itself. He does finally arrive at the ground at the end of the speech when he says “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent…”, and he appears to resolve not to do the deed i.e. to kill King Duncan. Macbeth is a great soldier and the savior of his country: he is ‘well-fitted’ for this; he is “Bellona’s bridegroom”. He is “ill-fitted” to be a king and this is captured in the play’s continual repetition of clothing motifs, both those fitting and that apparel which is ill-fitted.

To say that we live in a non-phronetic age would be understatement. Nike’s slogan of “Just Do It” captures our lack of deliberation and judgement when it comes to our actions.

Intelligence as Knowledge:

  1. Intellectual knowledge is that knowledge which is associated with our ways of knowing, primarily sense perception, reason, language and intuition. In Greek the term used is nous or mind. For the Greeks, noetic knowledge (intelligence) produces pistis or belief and, thus, we have our former TOK definition of knowledge as ‘justified, true belief’. This understanding of knowledge is derived from a combination of language, sense perception and reason. Notice that nous is placed last in order of importance for the Greeks; for us, of course, it is placed first.

In Greek, the word for language is logos. Logos became translated as ratio, which became further understood as “reason” by the Latins; and our word ‘logic’ is the derivative of this translation.  Logic is but one aspect of reason. One can think of the many associations that the word logos itself has in our modern usage. Think of all of your subjects of study: ‘bio-logy’, ‘psycho-logy’, ‘anthropo-logy’, etc. Language as ratio, in all its complexities, is our mode of access to the things that are and is the ground of our ‘shared knowledge’.

Let us try to grasp an understanding of noetic knowledge or intelligence as determined in language by examining the statement “The book is on the table”.  First, the thing (book) must be given to me to be addressed (cognition) and it must be addressed in speech i.e. its being communicable to others is the purpose of the addressing. Second, what is addressed is ‘the book’; this is the content of the statement. Third, there is what the book itself says of itself, how it answers our question of what it is i.e. it is a book and it is on the table. Fourth is our way of saying, the statement, the proposition: the book is on the table; either it is or it isn’t. Fifth is the structure of the addressedness itself i.e. the structure of what is addressed insofar as it is addressed. Here we have the subject: the book, and the predicate i.e. what is stated about the book i.e. it is ‘on the table’.  In the determination of language as an addressing of some thing as some thing, we should note that the thing addressed as some thing is 1) addressed as a thing; it is brought to a concrete stand or presence: it is a book and not a coffee cup; 2) in the addressing of some thing as some thing, the ‘as some thing’ refers to its universal and not its particular character trait. It is a book and there are many other things that can be called ‘books’.

The French philosopher Simone Weil once stated: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Love.” In contrast, we would say: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by Reason”. How does our experience of the world, our being-in-the-world, change when we express our ‘faith’ in our experience as enlightened by Love or when we believe our experience is enlightened by Reason? While what we mean by both Love and Reason are somewhat abstract concepts, surely the less controversial statement is the second. Could this be because we have relegated our understanding of Love to simply a biological necessity for ourselves as human beings, and this relegation of Love to the biological was based on our “Reason” in order for Reason to dominate?

What is Shared Knowledge?

Being/non-being, truth/semblance, knowledge/opinion, concept/assertion, value/non-value are basic concepts: what, in fact, do they mean? How are truth and semblance visible at all? Being and non-being? Where do we find and appropriate or grasp these types of things?

One of the most basic questions we are faced with in trying to understand our ‘shared knowledge’ is how do we attain a ground upon which to view our shared knowledge? How do we know ‘y’? How do I know ‘x’?

We stress ‘lived experience’ as the ground of our personal knowledge, but what, in fact, is lived experience? We might say that lived experience is composed of acts of judgement, of knowledge. How do these actions really appear? What has come to us as our “shared knowledge” pre-determines the manner in which objects come into view, how they will be viewed, and how they will be questioned. In TOK we want to take steps towards bringing into view for the first time the matters that are at issue for us and to provide an understanding of them. In coming to understand our “shared knowledge”, we come to understand ourselves i.e. we are our shared knowledge; we are our past. We understand ourselves when we gain knowledge of what we ought to be as human beings.  It is the Socratic dictum “Know thyself” and our striving is for the perfectibility of what we are as a human being.


Our ways of knowing are our accesses and our relationships to the beings/ things/ entities around us. Our ways of knowing disclose things as “such and such” and allow us to take possession, to grasp, to appropriate what is disclosed. This disclosure is what we call the “true”. The knowledge which comes about once we have grasped things “expresses” itself and grounds itself in the assertion. The assertion is what we have come to call the “truth”. For the Greeks, the “expression” of something is what they termed logos and it can mean the “saying”, “what is said”, and the “about that which is what is said”. These sayings all involve relations. We will explore this term logos in greater depth, for an understanding of it is crucial to an understanding of most of the concepts that are used throughout our discussions here and the discussions which you have in your TOK classes.

The concept of truth provides information about what knowledge is and truth’s relation to beings/things. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, truth is “judgement”, the determination of the ‘true’ or ‘false’ of things. The word in Greek for “truth” is a-letheia. The a-privative of the Greek language indicates that for the Greeks, contrary to what we understand the truth to be as a positive, truth was not something positive. The world as experienced does not disclose itself openly. What was originally “uncovered” becomes hidden or distorted by speech. “Opinions” become truisms so that what was originally disclosed is covered up again. “Idle talk” hides truth. For an ancient Greek, what we would call our ‘shared knowledge’ is only so much ‘idle talk’. The “publish or perish” syndrome that rules at our academies of learning creates only so much obfuscation and confusion so that the “original” things become covered up by so much “novelty”—unthought novelty.

Aletheia is the “uncovering” or “unconcealment” which brings beings/ things/ entities into “presence” and from this presence the “what” and the “how” of things can be determined. This disclosure of things is a manner, a way of being of human beings i.e. what we conceive the truth to be determines what we conceive ourselves to be as human beings. This disclosure is first achieved through language.

Language and Truth:

For the Greeks, human being is “the animal possessing language” (zoon logon echon). This feature distinguishes human beings from all other beings. Connected to this “speaking” is arithmos “counting”, but not a counting understood as “one, two, three” but a “counting on” something i.e. the design, the plan. Number develops from this “counting on” something. What distinguishes the language of human beings from that of other animals can be shown in the following simple example. I can say to my dog Lola, “Lola, walkies!”, and Lola will fetch me her leash. I cannot say to Lola, “Naughty dog! Go fetch me three newspapers so that I can clean up!” Only human beings know what a three means and this is what distinguishes our language from that of other animals and distinguishes us from other animals.

“Psyche” is the living presence of something alive. It is the Greek word for “soul”, and in the myths Psyche is married to the god Eros. Life itself is movement, kinesis, the coming to presence of some alteration. Every thought, every action is a movement of some kind. Speaking is a vocalizing which says something understandable about the world. Our speaking is a mode of psyche, a way of being alive. For the Greeks, language was connected to the soul; for us, of course, language is connected to the “mind” and is understood as “information” from which our “intelligence” derives. “Psyche-ology” is a modern subject.

“Truth” is understood as comportment or a way of being of human beings to the world and to itself in which the beings/ things of the world are present in conformity with the way they are. “Universal validity” has nothing to do with truth. Something can very well have universal validity and be binding for human beings universally and still not be true (“justified, true belief”). Most prejudices and things taken as obvious have such universal validity and yet they may distort things/ beings i.e. the current understanding of technology, for instance, is a very good example. On the other hand, something can be true which is not binding for everyone but only for a single individual. This does not mean that truth is “subjective” or relative. We are not the providers of the light which “unconceals” things.

For us today, theoretical knowledge has become mathematical knowledge, “algebraic calculation”, and only what approximates the evidence proper to mathematics is considered ultimately true. This is the dominating “principle of reason” which operates in our cognition, our awareness of the world and the things in it. Physics must report itself mathematically because of this principle of reason. But this is but one particular way of perceiving the world and the things within the world. This will be discussed in Reason as a Way of Knowing.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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