Saturday, 4 August 2012

Discussing Knowledge

To sceptical outsiders, the philosophical investigation of knowledge (epistemology, that is) might seem like an argument over nothing. Can't we simply answer the biggest question - "what is Knowledge" - with a link to an online dictionary or, failing that, a brief explanation of semantics and the nature of context? In other words, 'knowledge' means nothing on its own; its meaning is derived from the sentence in which it sits. You can draw out general senses from this and list them in a dictionary: "being aware of a fact", "familiarity with a concept", "practical skill in a certain area". Capital-k Knowledge has no existence unless it's defined, and the definition is essentially arbitrary; that is to say, almost every possible definition is equally valid.

This is wrong! To see why it's wrong, consider a field of discussion with obvious value, like car mechanics. It's obvious that there's meat there, that there's something of interest to be studied. However, try defining 'car' or 'engine' properly. The same problems that come up when you define 'knowledge' are here as well. Isn't 'car' used in different ways by different people? What counts as an engine? Can you construct an elegant definition that rules out trucks and buses without ruling out actual cars? Ought broken cars and engines count, and if so, where do you draw the line? And so on. Nevertheless, it's still possible to learn how to fix an engine without once touching the tricky philosophical problem of definition.

We drive our knowledge around every day: trivially, whenever we tell other people things. If you make a surprising claim about reality, you're likely to be asked 'how do you know that?' Whether you're a philosopher or not, you need to be able to answer that question - and, in order to do that, you need to have some vague idea of what it means to know anything in the first place.


  1. You seem to be confusing linguistic philosophy and semantics with epistemology.

  2. No, they're already confused and I'm trying to untangle them a bit. The question "what is knowledge" and the question "what do people mean when they use the word 'knowledge'" are fundamentally related; you need to know the answer to one in order to properly answer the other. Semantics and epistemology overlap.

    (I think! I could be wrong.)

    1. I freely admit that I could be wrong too. I'm working off a 1st year philosophy unit and an undergrad semantics unit.

      While there is a lot of overlap between these areas, they are distinct. As I understand it, semantics seeks to answer the question "how is meaning constructed?" while epistemology seeks to answer the question "what is knowledge and how can we tell when we have it?".

      The semantics get tricky when an object shares some, but not all, of the properties typically associated with a car. "Is a truck a car?" is a semantic question.

      To contrast, things get epistemologically tricky when we see a typical car in front of us and we say "I know that there is a car there" when it is actually a hologram or hallucination.

      Your example about cars and engines was definitely the domain of the former.