The Web of Knowledge
by Brian Lande

Great theorist and philosophers such as the stoics, skeptics, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Bertrand Russell, Darwin, Freud, and all of 20th century science have struggled with the question what is knowledge? and can we have knowledge? "To know" and "knowledge" are potent concepts and before taking Text and Critics, I took it for granted that I had knowledge of what knowledge is. Then came a simple question. After reading The American Scholar, I recall the class being asked "how is nature related to knowledge?" I didn't have an answer. But more importantly, before I could answer the former, I realized I didn't "know" what knowledge is. How could it be that I had never considered one of the most important philosophical questions asked of mankind--what can we know and what is knowledge?

There have been many different views about knowledge, but none of the major philosophers, perhaps because knowledge is such a potent concept and its understanding is assumed to be self evident, have explained what knowledge is. For example, I have here some views with knowledge but no definition of knowledge: Chuang-Tzu, the old Chinese sage and poet said: "Once I dreamed I was a butterfly, and now I no longer know whether I am Chuang-Tzu, who dreamed I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-Tzu." Black Elk, the Lakota moralist, told John Neihardt: "That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see or hear is something like a shadow from that world." So, too, was it for Plato. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The American Scholar : "We all know, that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge." St. Augustine wrote: "To wisdom belongs the intellectual apprehension of things eternal; to knowledge, the rational apprehension of things temporal. Descartes said the only thing we can know with certainty is our minds-- "Cogito ergo sum." Dennet reply's was to declare "our minds are--if you like--just as real as our dreams." We have many different views, but, no answer to "what is knowledge?"

In our class discussions we often have discussed whether or not we can have knowledge. With Plato we inquired into whether we could have knowledge of Absolute Truths, with Aristotle we sought to see if knowledge can come only from pure reason, solely through our senses, or both. With Carl Sagan we explored the boundaries of what can be known. With E.O. Wilson and Daniel C. Dennet we asked if we could have knowledge of our minds and whether our minds are capable of having and discovering knowledge. In my papers I have tried to answer the question of what we can know. I have often written that the only things we can know are those which are testable and that knowledge can only be collected by a reliable means such as science. Otherwise, our "knowledge" is nothing more than belief or someone's say so. I have even written about what I find so attractive about knowledge and science. We have dealt with many important views of knowledge, but we have yet to answer or discuss what knowledge is. This is the question that concerns the branch of philosophy called epistemology--the study of the origin, nature, methods and limits of knowledge. This is something I want to think through since we did not pursue this question in class. While it seemed obvious to me that the source of knowledge was nature or the universe, I have never actually been able to resolve what the essence of knowledge is. Is it an abstract meaning? Yes. But nonetheless it is a concept that I would like to grasp. This paper will deal with my present thoughts on what knowledge is .

I have listened carefully over the last few months to how others, books, and myself use the word knowledge. Knowledge, it seems, has come to be used interchangeably with four different words: information/fact, awareness, experience, or understanding (see Fig.1). In science, knowledge is often used in place of information and fact, as well as understanding. As of late I have begun to strongly believe that knowledge, being the abstract word that it is, means something greater than fact (something that has actual existence) or understanding (i.e. grasping meaning). I do believe that science does still have the right to lay claim on objective knowledge but its use should be more carefully considered as I will discuss latter. Knowledge is not information, for this tells us the state of something without explanation, such as the statement: light is a wave. This is a fact, a piece of data or its corollary evidence. (Frederick Nietzsche, perhaps properly so said, "There are no facts, only interpretation.") Nor is knowledge just experience. Experience, whether from pure reason (math) or through the senses (direct , naturalistic, and contrived observation [experimentation]), is a source of knowledge but does not define it. A common definition (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1976) says "knowledge is the fact or condition of being aware of something." But this too is incorrect. For instance: "did you know that the Yankee's won the game?" This could be better said as: were you aware that the Yankee's won the game?" Knowledge is confused with awareness which pertains solely to perceiving. I can know or be aware of a baseball score and not have knowledge of baseball. I can have awareness of humanity but not have knowledge of humanity. Finally, knowledge is not equivalent to understanding, for understanding is to grasp meaning or have a familiarity with something. Aristotle put it another way "understanding is applicable to the exercise of the faculty of opinion for the purpose of what someone else says about matters with which practical wisdom is concerned--and of judging soundly." Theory, unlike understanding, does away with opinion as Isaac Asimov defines:

"As it happens, the word theory is not properly understood by the general public, which tends to think of a theory as a 'guess.' Even dictionaries do not properly describe what the word means to scientist. Properly speaking, a theory is a set of basic rules, supported by a great many confirmed observations by many scientists, that explains and makes sensible a large number of facts that, without the theory, would seem to be unconnected " (1992, pg.11).

No, I do not believe that knowledge is any one of the above. There is a distinction between knowledge and information/fact/data/evidence, experience, awareness, and understanding/theory. Instead, knowledge is all of them combined. Knowledge can be thought of as a structure. Knowledge is the ability to relate information that is gathered from experience (whether internal or external, i.e. a priori [reasoning] or a postorie [empiricism]) to other pieces of information. By relating I also refer to understanding, i.e., taking information or facts and putting them in a context that is either familiar or foreign to be able to apply that information and experiences as in scientific theory. Understanding and theory should be able to answer "why?" I also include awareness in my definition of Knowledge as we must be aware of such and such in order to experience and have information and, as I stated before, we must include experience as it is the source of knowledge. Thus, Knowledge is not that this is a rock (information =fact or data/evidence), that I am aware that the rock exists ( I see a rock), that I am familiar with the rock through experience , or that I can explain and put into context what a rock is through my understanding (for understanding in this sense is subjective, it is an opinion). To have knowledge of a rock, we must be able to relate all of the above to each other through understanding, i.e., we have information, experience, and awareness but we can relate it through understanding that the rock in my hand is made up of minerals and that this rock is igneous and intrusive and, thus, formed slowly in a magma chamber and contains nearly 70% silica. Knowledge is a structure, not unlike a web connecting information and experiences into a coherent body in respect to covariance which result from the uniting of understanding and awareness from which follows the ability to relate information and experience together. The web is like the structure of knowledge; like the spider weaves a web silk, the mind weaves knowledge--each silk strand a part of the whole; and like a spider places its web in a space full of flies to catch, so to does the mind weave its web in reality to catch the substance of knowledge; and like the cherished eggs in the center of the web, so for knowledge lies wisdom; and like a web is supported by branches, so the web of knowledge is supported by imagination and all that is sacred to man (see Fig.1) The result of this structure called knowledge is a grasping of what Aristotle called the "necessary and true." The practical application of knowledge for the good and moral is often called wisdom. Wisdom, in this sense has been held to a higher esteem than knowledge it is the final goal. It might be said that knowledge is only a prerequisite, like imagination and intuition, for wisdom. Frederick Nietzsche said, "Wisdom sets bounds even to knowledge."

David Hume (1711-1776) said, "If we take in our hands any [paradigm]. . . let us ask 'Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?' No. 'Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?' No. 'Commit it then to flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.'" What Hume is deriding is the value of knowledge placed on "complex ideas." These complex ideas don't belong to the realm of knowledge, instead they belong to the realm of transcendental realization--the realm of the untestable: imagination, love, art, music, God, aliens, etc. A complex idea, according to Hume, consists of multiple experiences which are non-veridical, but which nevertheless are associated in man's imagination (e.g. a winged calculator). Nothing, for Hume, is ever actually invented by the mind. The mind puts together and constructs false ideas such as a "winged calculator." We can have complex ideas about winged calculator because we have experienced wings and calculator and our minds (or--if you will--our brain) have put them together to form the complex idea of a winged calculator. But this is a false idea and it must be rejected as knowledge, not because it positively doesn't exist, but because we have no way to perceive that it exists--it is most likely an illusion or dream. Hume's point is that sometimes we form complex ideas for which there is no corresponding object in the physical world. We shouldn't immediately claim that Hume is a "skeptic" (not like Carl Sagan's skepticism, but representing a philosophy dating back thousands of years). Skeptics thought that man should accept that he knew nothing. On the contrary, Hume would only reject winged calculators and miracles because he had never experienced them nor had anyone conclusive evidence that either existed. Hume was open minded; there was always the possibility that such things were true but unless they can be shown to be veridical they must be called something other than knowledge.

Hume was trying to see the world as fresh and as sharply outlined as possible. He wanted knowledge of the world but first he needed to clean up all the garbage that we claimed to have knowledge of but didn't. What George Orwell tried to do for language and thought in Politics and the English Language David Hume did for knowledge and thought. We must tidy up our thoughts and ideas, as we do our book collections in the same way. The distinction being made is between two realms, each valid and of utmost importance to humanity: objective knowledge and transcendental realization. What is the difference between these two realms? Objective knowledge is accumulated through "abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number" and "experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence." Transcendental realization can be said to originate from sources not dependent on fact. The difference is that objective knowledge deals with what can be verified truths (scientific and mathematic truths) and the realm of transcendental realization contains things like opinion, illusion, imagination, belief, faith, beauty, and poetry which not testable. Twice two is four is a subject of objective knowledge--it is a universal truth not affected by any beliefs or dependent on faith and transcendental realization, but knowledge for which all will come to the same answer--it is independent of human existence. So it must be for all objective knowledge. Things like aesthetics may not be corresponded to reality and originate in the mind (which I have proved is subjective in Is Anybody Home ? and thus is not a reliable source of objective knowledge through pure reason or faith) and hence must be called transcendental realization. Transcendental realization is as legitimate and as important as knowledge, yet it can not go by the same name or definition. Albert Einstein wrote: "I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." Knowledge and Imagination are very different. They belong to separate semesters!

Scientific knowledge is knowledge that can be verified through a priori and a postorie means. It is knowledge that describes the universe and is objective, likewise it holds true for everyone (e.g. twice two is four). Aristotle wrote (The Nicomachean Ethics, Packet, pg.140):

"We all suppose that what we know is not even capable of being otherwise; of things capable of being otherwise we do not know, when they have passed outside of our observation, whether they exist or not. Therefore the object of scientific knowledge is of necessity. Therefore it is eternal; for things that are of necessity in the unqualified sense are all eternal; and things that are eternal are ungenerated and imperishable. Again, every science is thought to be capable of being taught, and its object being learnt."

Transcendental realization is a realm of creativity, filled with images, imagination, and beauty. However, transcendental realization is not knowledge, for there is no evidence (or facts) that suggests that it has any veridical or testable value for which it can be a subject of scientific knowledge. Transcendental realization has no consistent or necessary relationship with scientific truth and, in fact, is often thought true regardless of the facts. A case in which this can be found is in The Winter's Tale. King Leontes believes he has knowledge that his wife Hermione has had an adulterous relationship with King Polixenes, based not on fact and experience, but on pure reason and false intuition. He may have belief of an adulterous affair but it is not scientific nor objective knowledge, there is no relationship to the reality for there is a lack of corroborative fact/data/evidence, this is false belief.

Hume showed the difference between knowledge and transcendental realization by making a distinction between knowledge and faith. He rejected neither faith in Christianity nor faith in winged calculators. But Hume described both as matters of faith, or transcendental realization, and not of objective or scientific knowledge or reason. In a letter to a Mensa newsletter "ewniForum" (December 1998) Jeff Shepherd wrote on the difference between faith and the scientific knowledge : "My belief in Creation is a matter of Faith not Science, and I will neither corrupt Science to fit the mold of my Faith nor will I deny my Faith simply because it is not contained within the current realm of Science." Bertrand Russell said, "It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why be believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence not authority [or transcendental realization]." Knowledge then, is the linking together of a coherent structure of objective facts, experiences, theories and understandings that we call scientific knowledge. The principle substance of scientific knowledge must itself be proven objective and universal under the rigor of science, otherwise we call this knowledge transcendental realization, for it can only be considered a matter of opinion, belief, reason, imagination, aesthetics, and faith--all disparate to truth.

Through Text and Critics readings and discussions, I have gained a clear sense of the necessity of clear thinking, discernment, tight definitions and a multi-level comprehension of a myriad of different philosophies of knowledge. I am most grateful to have been given the opportunity to disassemble some of the concepts and assumptions I took for granted and to intensify my quest to carefully and purposefully search to understand the concepts that entwine my life. The critical goal and objective of this course is knowledge, and through it I have realized how much I don't know. Socrates in the Apology said that he was wise because "True knowledge exist in knowing that you know nothing." Confucius said, "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." Knowledge humbles. Perhaps the truth is that we can't have knowledge of knowledge. For knowledge is itself a complex idea belonging to imagination and winged calculators: a way in which we try to grasp the world like one might try to grasp air in his hand. Socrates also said "Athens is like a sluggish horse--and I am the gadfly trying to sting it to life." Is this not the purpose of this course, to awaken those who are sluggish in their new found thought--to sting their minds and bring their thoughts to life--to be able to have students rapturous in the thought that they are awakening their minds and enthusiastically inaugurating the procession of new knowledge. I have felt the sting and it is invigorating and want to sting minds. The pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge of knowledge, with an open heart and mind, has been for me, not only an experience in development, but a thrill ride through the boundaries of what I know--it has pushed past the edges of my mind to a new frontier waiting to be discovered. My only hope is that I choose not to end this thrill ride where it is most frighting, that new frontier waiting to be discovered, so vast and enigmatic but so full of potential, wonderment, and humility.

"If confusion is the first step to knowledge, I must be a genius"
--Larry Leissner

"Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."
--Samuel Johnson

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?"
--T.S. Eliot, The Rock

We are drowning in information and starved for knowledge

"By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight we all quote. In fact it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Philosophy Essays



Neihardt, John. 1961. Black Elk Speaks . Lincoln and London, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Confucius. 1989. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Vintage Books, A division of Random House, Inc.

Gaarder, Jostein. 1996. Sophie's World, A Novel About the History of Philosophy. New York: Berkeley Books.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The American Scholar.

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Custom Course Packet.

Plato.1984. The Great Dialogues of Plato. New York, New York: Mentor.

Quotes not from text T&C text, above, or otherwise mentioned are from: http://www.


Philosophy Essays