I feel the urge to write about “knowledge”. Actually, all my letters are, somehow, about “knowledge”, because statements and viewpoints that are not in any way informed by knowledge are mere non-sense, opinion (very likely wrong), or pointless blabla. However, I’d like to clarify a few points that make past and future letters better understandable.
First of all, as a native German speaker, I have difficulties with the English word “knowledge”. There are three German words that all translate into “knowledge” according to the dictionary, but that are fundamentally different (from my understanding):
- Wissen – what someone knows, which is what someone is consciously aware of and what someone can recall, recite, understand, and make use of. In Ancient Greece it is episteme. There is also a difference between the two German verbs wissen and kennen that is not easily expressed in English. I can know (kennen, maybe as in “be acquainted with“) someone without knowing (wissen) anything about him (except the name, for example).
- Erkenntnis – the process of becoming aware of new knowledge, the step from empirical or cognitive experience to meaningful information, the sense-making process. An alternative English translation would be “insight”. The verb erkennen, however, means rather “to recognise” or “realise”, “to find out”, to identify”, indicating that this idea of “knowledge” is not static like “Wissen”, but rather a procedural phenomenon or even an act.
- Einsicht – in German almost a synonym to Erkenntnis, but with a stronger association to understanding something. Therefore, it is close to “access” (into a matter), “comprehension” and “judiciousness”.
I believe that this differentiation is very important! We are often not aware of the fact that all our knowledge (Wissen) is the result of a construction process that elaborates knowledge (Erkenntnis) from experiences. The most impacting implication from this is that there can’t be a direct link between knowledge and truth! What we can know – this is the question that epistemology asks – is strictly confined by our cognitive capacity on the one side, and the margin that is spun up by our previous experiences and within which we are able to make sense of an information (to have Einsicht) on the other side. As written earlier, we can never know whether our knowledge is true or not; or with better words: to what degree our knowledge reflects actuality (since there is not only right and wrong, but a gradual scale between these two extremes). A better criterium to determine the value of knowledge is its viability, the success of it in situations in which we apply it. In any case, empirically reasoned and logically consistent knowledge is usually more viable than believed, dogmatic, emotionally felt or unconsciously driven knowledge (I am thinking of religious indoctrination, sex drive, fear of death, or the mind poisons in Buddhist philosophy). I found this definition of knowlede:
Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It consists of truth, beliefs, perspectives, concepts, judgments, expectation, methodologies, know-how; and exists in different forms such as tacit, explicit, symbolic, embodied, en-brained and en-cultured knowledge. (Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, Chapter 2, p.20, in “A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology” (editors: Olsen, Pedersen, Hendricks), Blackwell, 2009)
This is insightful but lacks one important point: The differentiation of knowledge into a static form (things to know) and a procedural and performative form (knowledge acquisition, understood as sense-making in a constructivist fashion, and its manifestation in our lifeworld), that I illustrated by different German translations of knowledge.
Knowledge should always be the foundation of our decisions and choices. Yes, this is a prescriptive claim that needs a prescriptive premise if I want to avoid a naturalistic fallacy. Does knowledge have an ethical dimension? I believe so, and I feel confirmed by history. Knowledge has ever since been “power”. Those who know have power over those who don’t know. In countless cases – just take organised religion and the German Nazi regime as two famous examples – the claimed superior knowledge, however, turns out to be flawed and easily contestable. Constructs like “God”, “hell” or “the Aryan” can – from today’s perspective – easily be unmasked as humbug, so that the so called knowledge must actually be characterised as a very dangerous form of ignorance: believing to know while in fact one is so far from reason that one actually knows nothing. Knowledge is never an isolated individual phenomenon, but one that arises from separating and distinguishing things. As Niklas Luhmann pointed out, to know A means to make a distinction between A and everything else. Experience and its processing into constructed knowledge happens always in the inter-sphere – between things, between people, between societies and cultures. Here it gets delicate: When I am not aware that my insight is the result of my own construction, I might fall victim to the believe that my knowledge is closer to the absolute truth than that of others, which means almost inevitably that I feel superior to those others. Therefore, – deontologically spoken – it is my duty to contest and challenge my knowledge claims over and over again, let it be criticised and refined, and constantly seek for additional input (experiences from which to construct more meaning) and information. Or – from the perspective of virtue ethics – a truly virtuous person doesn’t blindly follow his knowledge (“Einsichten”), but seeks wisdom (a word that etymologically derives from German Weisheit and, therefore, means literally knowledgehood or knowledgeability).
A powerful way to challenge and contest knowledge, especially in the realm of orientational knowledge for normative issues (for example in political debates, or in the arena of technology assessment), is the “ideal discourse” approach by Jürgen Habermas (and others, but he is most prominent and influential). A discourse (debate, conversation, dialogue, polylogue, etc.) can come to viable conclusions under “fair” communicative conditions and under exclusion of power hierarchies or pre-defined truths, thus applying communicative rationality. In this process, viable knowledge is generated by comparing, combining and challenging different constructions (both in the static (construct) and the procedural (constructing) sense) in order to elaborate a more accurate picture that has a better chance to describe the reality appropriately (see also my letter World construction). The discourse must be “ideal” in the sense that not the most popular argument or that brought up by the most influential, famous, powerful participant wins, but that which is most plausible, logically consistent, withstanding criticism and challenge, and empirically traceable and supportable. That means, we need knowledge to come to new knowledge. A convincingly knowledgeable discourse participant has a higher chance to “win” with his or her arguments than one who can’t convince the others of the validity of his claims. In this sense, of course, knowledge is “power”. In the mentioned discourse arenas (politics, technology assessment) this is manifested in participants being required to have a certain expertise (a knowledge base in a specific field). Nobody would elect fools and idiots into parliaments and governments (in the USA that seems to be possible though), and numerous measures and procedures have been established to ensure the quality of social systems like academia, industry, economy, and other expert realms. Therefore, I see no problem in knowledge having power – it is even good like that, because the alternative of knowledge would be dogmatism, ignorance, and idiocracy. The problems about knowledge are rather:
- Knowledge understood as ultimate truth that discriminates all that knowledge that goes against that claim.
- Knowledge that is misused for selfish and self-interested purposes like influence, power, fame, money, wealth, or any form of privilege.
- Knowledge that violates empirical reasoning, rationality, logic and contradicts other more reliable knowledge (for example: political decisions based on religious beliefs and economic interests that ignore scientific insights, as the debate on climate change in the USA).
All these forms of knowledge, however, turn out to be ignorance at a closer look. False knowledge! May we find more efficient and reliable ways to increase the impact of viable knowledge and its procedures of constructing it in the respective societal decision-making instances! Philosophical insights such as pragmatism (one of the few useful and good things coming from USA), constructivism and other epistemological approaches may help achieving that goal!