What we know by “ways of knowing”

You’re in an intimate relationship.  This has progressed for some months, but it is still in phase of deep affection and discovery.  One morning you wake up and run your hand along your lover’s body, who moans in appreciation.  At this point you realize that you know this person’s body, what gives it pleasure, what makes it hurt, to what stimuli it is responsive, and to what it is unresponsive.  Almost as well as you know you’re own.  Yet try to articulate this.  You can list off the stimuli, yet you can’t precisely relate the responses.  Is it that the hair stands on end?  A subtle ripple in the flesh?  A change of tone in skin color?  Perhaps there is even a scent, a slight change in temperature – but though you may be sensing thee, they aren’t even conscious to you.  Yet they are certainly part of this knowledge you have of the other’s body.

If you are lucky in your relationship, this knowledge will change, occasionally receding, perhaps to extinction.  You will develop different knowledge concerning your partner – having to do with gestures, moods, history, peculiar language uses, tastes and interests.  And as the partner change – and you change, these will all also change, and your knowledge will seem complete some days, and on other days you will wonder who this person is that you are living with….  Some of this knowledge you can articulate; some of it is barely perceptible to yourself; some exists in the unconscious, in the collection of remembered experiences you are primed to respond to.   yet it is knowledge nonetheless.  Living with another person would be unbearable otherwise.

This knowledge again, may lack some articulation; yet it is clearly not the ‘ineffable’ knowledge mystics claim they realize.  It is not the supersensible or the supernatural known, but the living other human being you live with, break bread with, share a bed with.  It is as ‘down to earth’ as can be.  Yet science cannot study it, philosophy rarely thinks on it.  It can only be ‘increased’ or ‘improved’ by remaining actively involved, in a positive way, with the other person.  This is personal knowledge – you’ll never get it from a book (and you can only write about it impressionistically, for instance in a poem).

But let’s talk about the knowledge you expect to get out of books.

Science and philosophy (in the West, anyway) understand knowledge as primarily what can be articulated, and see it as necessarily dependent on truth, which is considered to be a function of language.   In other words, we are said to know what we know if we can articulate that knowledge in a language which is open to determination of its truth.  What precisely this means has been open to some contention between various schools of thought since Plato first raised the question in his Socratic dialogues.  In general, the platonic definition has held sway in modern philosophy:  Knowledge is “justified true belief, usually presented anacronymically as “JTB” – although I usually present this as “JBT,” for “justified belief and true,” since the distinction here is between belief that can be justified somehow, and its expression, which then can be determined true.  In general, debates concerning this definition have revolved around the methods of justification used to derive a true statement from the belief.  In mathematics, what kinds of axiom sets can be properly used with what systems in what domains?  In the sciences, to what extent do we trust the empirical, and in what ways do we test our beliefs in order to secure propositions for theory construction?   Obviously, the methodology of justification changes somewhat from field to field; but as long as some methodology can be used to justify the belief, the belief can then be safely expressed in some sentential form, it’s truth examined for greater clarification, and then the belief constitutes knowledge .  At least that’s the story.

But the problem took a disturbing turn in 1963 when  young philosopher named Gettier noticed that something happened if you applied the JBT criterion to a disjunctive proposition (“P or Q”) *.  In modern logic a disjunctive is generally considered true if at least one statement of the proposition is true.  “It rains today or it snows in May,”  is true if it rains today, regardless of whether it snows in May.  The only justification for believing the proposition needed is that it rains today, and I hear a weather report to that effect.  And if it’s raining, then it’s true.    So it is then known.

But what if it doesn’t rain today; what if the weather report I was listening to was actually an old recording, and, unaware of this and being inside all day, I am never aware that it hasn’t rained.  But tomorrow is the first of May and during a freak cold snap, it snows.  Was the original proposition true when I made it?  Modern logic tells us it was.  Does it constitute knowledge?  No, because it was pure chance that it snowed in a month in which it (almost) never snows.   So now, not only is the proper methodology for justification open to debate, but the logical methodology for truth determination is also suspect.

Well, maybe not so much.  Only a handful of specialists still worry their heads much over the Gettier problem these days; and most scientists are probably unaware of it.  It’s a technical issue that doesn’t lend itself to larger considerations.  But the impact of this problem has been that the ground of what constitutes knowledge now seems pretty shaky.

I discuss this at length here, because among so-called Analytic philosophers in the West, JBT has been the gold standard for what could be considered knowledge since the 19th century.  But it is not the only possible construction we can build for knowledge.  Kant, for instance, believed that judgment was a more important problem for knowledge claims than justification,  because it involves a complex interplay between various forms of reasoning.  And when Pragmatism reached its fullest flowering, the philosophy of Dewey, it became clear that one could conceive of knowledge in purely practical terms – statements or theories could be said to be ‘true,’ contingently, as long as they ‘worked,’ that is, accomplished some benefit.

Even within the Analytic tradition, it should be noted, there was awareness that JBT could not encompass all that people could be said to ‘know.’  Principally, the philosophers concerned themselves with technical knowledge, or what is call a ‘knowledge how.’  This can still be articulated, but its realization occurs in practice.  One can write a manual on how to fix a car, but practicing mechanics don’t need to read it.

In the ’60s (around the time when Gettier was having his problem with disjunctive propositions), certain theorists began to realize that JBT – indeed, the philosophical and scientific understanding of knowledge, taken as a whole – was incomplete in many ways.  Take, for instance, the knowledge of what it might mean to have been a slave before the Civil War.  Traditional texts in academic history and anthropology could be composed in propositions open to testing compliant with those of JBT standards.  But what about narratives by the slaves themselves?  And what about narratives handed down generation to generation of descendents of slaves?  And what about surviving songs that were apparently originating with slaves or composed soon after they accomplished their freedom?  The slaves and their children surely knew what it meant to be a slave, they didn’t need to articulate this in a manner compliant with JBT, they couldn’t wait for some anthropologist to analyze their experience for them.

Consideration of such questions – and many similar questions, in many different fields of the arts and social sciences – led to the popularization of the term “ways of knowing.”  In the present example, for a slave to write a song as a means of understanding his/her condition and its limitation, constitutes the slave’s ‘way of knowing,’ and a means of communicating that knowledge to others in similar state.

Consider the old song, “The Blue Tail Fly:”

When I was young, I used to wait
On the boss and give him his plate
And pass him the bottle when he got dry
And brush away the blue tail fly


And When he would ride in the afternoon
I’d follow after, with a hickory broom
The pony being rather shy
When bitten by blue tail fly


One day, he ride around the farm
The flies so numerous, they did swarm
One chanced to bite him on the thigh
The devil take the blue tail fly


The pony run, he jumped, he pitch
He threw my master in the ditch
He died and the jury wondered why
The verdict was the blue tail fly


They lay him under a ‘simmon tree
His epitaph is there to see
“Beneath this stone, I’m forced to lie
Victim of the blue tail fly”


Read straightforwardly, this seems to be the song of a humble slave mourning for his master.

But it is also possible to read it subversively – where was the slave when the flies were swarming? why wasn’t he sweeping the flies away?  Is it possible that the jury passed judgment on the fly because they couldn’t believe the slave capable of murdering his supposedly beloved master?  Hasn’t the slave found a means of resistance he cannot be held punishable for?  And hasn’t he relayed that information to other slaves by singing about it?

The song thus contains knowledge – concerning the system of slavery; concerning possible acts of resistance to it; and concerning a means of communicating such resistance to others.  But it doesn’t look anything like an academic theory, from any field.

Again such possible readings of ‘folk’ experience – even the experience of modern ‘folk’ – are possible for a wide range of social phenomena, from journals written as part of some therapy, to letters to the editor; from quilts sewn together in a group of neighbors sharing the same interest, to explorers in the wild carving their initials in a tree.

The problem with the use of the term ‘ways of knowing’ is that in the later ’70s, it started being abused to justify questionable truth claims, for instance those of mystics assuring the public that staring at their navels and chanting “om” was a ‘way of knowing’ a higher, astral reality.  Then in the ’80s, multiculturalists and post-modernists began using it to justify epistemological relativism – different peoples had different ‘ways of knowing, they claimed, so there was no single ‘truth’ to be said of any issue.

At this point in history, the landscape is cluttered with competing knowledge claims, some solidly grounded (although lacking the absolute certainty we once hoped knowledge could claim), and some completely off the wall.  And of course there are also the various claims of certainty for some sacred texts, ideologues, and hucksters like L. Ron Hubbard.

One reason I’m a Pragmatist is because grounding knowledge as ‘what works’ (which is by no means as easy as it sounds), is a fairly reliable daily practice, the admitted contingency of which also allows me to learn new things, even if they suggest that previously assumed knowledge was simply wrong.

That is why, in opposition to skeptics who even doubt that we can say the sun will rise tomorrow, I say I know the sun will rise (because it has never let me down so far).  If the sun doesn’t rise, then I will learn something else.  Or I will be dead, in which case the subject is moot.

We often speak of “knowledge” as if we ‘know’ what that means.  I would suggest that the term is actually hopelessly ambiguous, that the kind of certainty it seems to promise is unattainable, that while there is a truth, there are truths, their status is tenuous and contingent on experience and possible new discoveries.  Yet, along with everyone else, I continue to use the word “knowledge” as though I ‘know’ what this means, and I do mean this – I suppose because I’m hoping everyone else means something similar by the term, if never quite the same.

* I have written about the Gettier problem before:

** Chorus:

Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care
Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care
Jimmy crack corn an’ I don’t care
My master’s gone away


I believe that the cartoon at the top was copied from a free-for-use site, but unfortunately I don’t remember the site or the cartoon’s author.  If the author complains, I’ll remove it.


7 thoughts on “What we know by “ways of knowing”

  1. Science and philosophy (in the West, anyway) understand knowledge as primarily what can be articulated, and see it as necessarily dependent on truth, which is considered to be a function of language.

    That (as an account of knowledge) has always seemed wrong to me, where “always” means since around age 10 when I first thought about it.

    In other words, we are said to know what we know if we can articulate that knowledge in a language which is open to determination of its truth.

    On the other hand, that has always seemed about right. The “if we can articulate” really makes that an assertion about ability. So it isn’t what can be articulated. I see the ability to articulate as mostly a test of one’s knowledge, rather than the knowledge itself. The knowledge is in deeper abilities, and articulating in language is just one way of demonstrating that knowledge.

    The auto mechanic doesn’t demonstrate his knowledge by giving an elaborate description of what is wrong with my car. He demonstrates his knowledge by fixing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The knowledge you have described in the first paragraph is unassailable and I think there are philosophers that have posited that our knowledge is based on experience or possibility of experience. I could be wrong in this.
    I think though if science is construed as a method, then even the one described above is covered in science.
    Am trying to think of the story you have given of the slave and am thinking of the christian boy brought up in the christian belief and asking myself if they, as long as they are in it, can know they are deluded?


    • In Medieval Europe, when the only beliefs alternative to Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox orders were (externally) Islam, and (internally) dissenting (but still professedly Christian) heresies – no, it would not have been possible to conceive possible to know what was not delivered as sacred word via the Book, except what was approved via institutional interpretation of the Book. A totalitarian knowledge regime is always undone at the margins; gradually people ask questions the accepted knowledge cannot answer, become concerned with problems that accepted knowledge cannot resolve, encounter phenomena that knowledge cannot account for. I think such a processes seems to occur for individuals as well. People are never actually ‘converted’ to a new belief or a new way of thinking about the world, they undergo a psychological process to account for anxiety over unanswered questions, unresolved problems, etc., sometimes for the better (but sometimes not).


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