What, exactly, is “knowledge”?

In this post, I would like to try to say what knowledge is, or to give a precise and a complete definition of what it means “to know.” In doing so, I will also say a little about what it is possible for us to know, and about the limits of our knowledge.

To begin with, then:

1.

We say that “knowing” a thing is different from “believing” it, or from “opining” that it is the case.

For instance, this person may believe that God exists, while that person may believe that He does not. But it is quite possible that neither one of them knows that what they believe is true. For each might just be opining a certain thing, without knowing that it is the case.

Thus, “knowing” is different from merely “believing,” or “opining.”

2.

Likewise, to “know” a thing is different from merely “believing” what is true. For it is possible for a belief of ours to just happen to be the case, without us knowing that it is true in any way at all. Hence, to “know” that a thing is the case is not the same as to “believe” a thing that is true.

3.

Likewise, to “know” a thing is not the same as to be certain that it is the case – even if the thing that we are certain of is true. For it is possible for us to be certain of a belief, and even for that belief to be true, without us knowing that our belief is true.

Nor would it matter if every single other human being was just as certain of that exact same belief. For even if every single human being was certain of something, and even if all of them were correct in their belief, it would still be possible that none of them would know that they were correct. For if we are certain of a thing without having any evidence or insight for what we are certain of, then we do not know that we are correct – even if every other human being is certain of the exact same thing.

Likewise, just as the consensus of human beings does not mean that a thing is true, neither does this consensus mean that a thing is false. For it is possible for a single individual to know that a thing is true, and to have a direct apprehension of its reality, even if every other human being believes that this single individual is mistaken. For “knowing” is something that each of us can achieve on our own, and verify for ourselves, independently of the community of which we are a part. Likewise, knowing is a thing that each of us must verify for ourselves. For if I do not know a thing as a result of my own insight, or on the basis of evidence that is available to me in particular, then I cannot be said to know it – no matter what anyone might say to me, or tell me is the case.

Hence, to “know” a thing, it is not enough to have a belief that is true, or that we are certain of, or that all human beings are certain of, or even that all human beings are certain of, and that is true. For something more is required to truly know that a thing is the case, rather than to merely believe it, or opine it.

4.

To know a thing is somehow to “see” that it is the case, or to apprehend it.

For instance, I do not just take it on trust that a triangle is a three-sided figure. For, I can see for myself how this is the case – can see how “being-three-sided” is just a part of what it means to be a “triangle.” Thus, this is something that I truly know is the case, and that I do not have to just “believe,” or opine.

Hence, there seems to be an intimate connection between our “knowing” what is the case, and our “seeing” the character of things. To understand what it means “to know,” then, it will be worth considering the the way in which we “see” the world – the way in which we are conscious.

5.

Each of us has a direct and an immediate consciousness of some aspects of reality.

When I say, “direct and immediate,” I mean, a consciousness that does not pass through the medium of our cognition – that is not mediated by our thoughts.

For instance, I have an immediate apprehension of colors, and of sounds. For when I am aware of a sound, I am not aware of a thought of a sound. Rather, I am aware of the sound itself. Likewise, when I am aware of a color, I am not aware of the thought of a color. Rather, I am aware of the color itself.

Of course, I can also be aware of my thoughts about colors, or of my thoughts about sounds. But my awareness of these thoughts is different from my awareness of the colors and the sounds themselves. For I am not aware of these things through the medium of thought, but directly, and immediately – as they are in themselves.

Hence, I have a direct and an immediate awareness of some aspects of reality.

6.

Further, in just the same way that I have an immediate apprehension of things like color, and things like sound, I also have an immediate consciousness of my own ideas. For, when I am aware of the idea, “a triangle,” I am aware of this idea itself – and not my idea of this idea (not my idea of an idea of a triangle). Likewise, when I am aware of the idea, “a square,” I am aware of the idea itself – aware of it directly and immediately. For, I am aware of each of my thoughts, and each of my ideas, in exactly the same way that I am aware of a color, or a sound. For in just the same way that I “see” a color, or “see” a sound, I also “see” what a triangle is, and that a triangle is a three-sided figure.

Hence, just as I have a direct and immediate apprehension of my own sensations, I also have a direct and immediate apprehension of my own thoughts, and of my own ideas.

7.

Even if I did not think that I was aware of my sensations, or of my thoughts, I would still be aware of them.

Awareness is something different from my thought that I am aware.

8.

In order to know about the world, I must be aware of the objects of my own awareness. For, if I was not aware of the thought, “a triangle is a three-sided figure,” then I could not know that it was true. Likewise, if I was not aware of my thoughts, then I could not know that “2 + 2 = 4.” For I must be aware of my thought, “2 + 2 = 4,” to know that it is true.

Hence, in order to know about the world, I must be aware of the objects of my own awareness.

9.

But further, this awareness of the objects of my own awareness is the only thing that I need in order to be able to know about the world. For so long as I am aware of my own thoughts, and of my own sensations, then I can know at least a little about the world.

For, I can imagine to myself that the whole world is just an illusion, and that my consciousness of the objects of my own consciousness is the only thing that exists. I can imagine, in other words, that all of my sense-perceptions are just illusions, and that there are no trees, or stars, or minerals, or animals, or other human beings – that I do not even have a body, which would exist even if I ceased to be aware – but that all of these things are just figments of my imagination. But even then – even if the “real” world was just an illusion – I could still know, at least, that this illusion is real, and that I am conscious of it. For so long as I am aware, and so long as I am aware of my own awareness, then I can know that I exist, and that I am aware, and that I am aware of the things that I am aware of – of these sensations, and of these thoughts. For no matter how illusory or deceptive the things that I am conscious of might be, my consciousness, at least, is something real, and a part of what the world truly is, in and of itself.

Hence, in order to know about the world, I only need to be aware of the objects of my own awareness. For even if my consciousness was the only thing that existed, it would still be possible for me to “know.”

10.

On the basis of the preceding, it is now possible to say what knowledge is, or to give a definition of what it means to “know.”

For, If I assume that x is the only thing that exists, and if it is still possible on the basis of this assumption for y to exist, then either y is x, or y is a part of x. For otherwise, if y was neither identical to nor a part of x, then y could not exist, if x were the only thing that existed.

Now, in the preceding, it was shown that, even if my consciousness was the only thing that existed, then it would still be possible for me to know about the world. Hence, either my “knowing” is my consciousness, or it is a part of it.For to “know,” and to be “conscious,” are somehow just one and the same.

For instance, even if my consciousness was the only thing that existed, I could still know that “2 + 2 = 4.” For I could be conscious of the idea denoted by “2 + 2;” and I could be conscious of the idea denoted by “4;” and I could be conscious of how the one idea is the same as the other. Thus, I could be conscious of how the thought, “2 + 2 is 4,” is true. Thus, even if my consciousness was all that existed in the world, I could still know that “2 + 2 = 4.”

Likewise, even if my consciousness was the only thing that existed, I could still know that “a triangle has three sides.” For I could be aware of the idea of “a triangle,” and of the idea of “having-three-sides,” and I could be aware that the one idea is a part of the other. Hence, I could be aware that the thought, “a triangle has three sides,” is true. But there is no difference between “being aware” that this thought is true, and “knowing” that it is true. For to know is just to be aware of the thing that is known. Hence, even if my awareness was the only thing that existed, I could still know that a triangle has three sides. For I could still be aware of it.

Hence, to “know” a thing is the same as to be “conscious” of it.

Thus, “knowing” either is my consciousness, or it is a part of it.

11.

However, even though “knowing” a thing is the same as being “conscious” of it, being “conscious” of a thing is not always the same as “knowing” it. For there seem to be some things that I can be conscious of, but that I cannot “know,” in the usual way that we use this word.

For instance, I am conscious of these colors, and of these sounds. But, it is not quite right to say that I “know” them – even though I do know that they exist. For I do not seem to “know” my ideas, or my sensations, in just the same way in which I am “conscious” of them. Rather, I seem to know that they exist – to be conscious that they are.

Thus, even though “to know” a thing is always “to be conscious” of it, “to know” is not quite the same as “to be conscious of.” For, “to know” seems to mean, not just, “to be conscious,” but rather, to be conscious that.

In other words:

To know is to be conscious that a thought is true.

12.

Thus, “knowing” is a part of our awareness, and not the whole of it. For it is that part of our awareness which is aware of how our true thoughts are true.

13.

This, then, is what it means “to know.”

It remains to say a little about the implications of this account for our knowledge as a whole.

14.

From the preceding definition, it follows that I can only know about my own thoughts, and my own sensations.

For, to know that a thought is true means, to be conscious that a thought is true.

But, to be conscious that a thought is true is to be conscious that a thought is in agreement with reality.

Now, to be conscious that a thought is in agreement with reality, I must be conscious both of the thought, and of the reality. For otherwise, I could not be conscious that the one is in agreement with the other.

Hence, to be conscious that a thought is true, I must be conscious of the reality which it describes.

But, I am only aware of the objects of my awareness – my own thoughts, and my own sensations. For even if I am aware of an idea of a thing that exists apart from me, that idea, at least, is my own idea, and a part of my own awareness. Hence, I am only aware of the objects of my awareness – my own thoughts, and my own sensations.

Thus, since I must be aware of an object in order to know a single thing about it, and since the only things that I am aware of are my thoughts, and my sensations, it follows at once that these are the only things in the world which I can know a single thing about.

15.

Likewise, it follows that I cannot know a single thing about the past, or about the future.

For again, to be aware that a thought is true, I must be aware of the object with which that thought agrees.

But, what I am aware of in this moment is always a thing that exists in this moment – and not a thing that exists in the past, or in the future. For even if I am aware of an idea of the past, or an idea of the future, that idea, at least, is something that exists now, and it is this idea that I am aware of.

Thus, since I must be aware of an object to know a single thing about it, and since I can only be aware of what I am aware of now, in this present moment, it follows that I cannot know a single thing about the past, or about the future.

16.

From the preceding, it follows that I can only know about what I am aware of, at this moment in time.

17.

It may seem that, if we were to accept the conclusion above, then the whole project of philosophy would be impossible. For it might seem like, if I can only know about my own thoughts, and my own sensations, then it would be impossible for me to say a single thing of any philosophical significance. It might instead like I would be reduced to merely saying, “this is this, and that is that” – this sensation is this sensation, and that thought is that thought – and nothing more.

But, on this, two last reflections.

Firstly, even if we were to restrict ourselves to speaking about what it is possible for us to know, the science of philosophy would still have a wealth of questions left to resolve, and to answer. For, to answer a question like, “what is knowledge,” or, “what is time,” I only need to be aware of my idea of knowledge, or of my idea of time. Hence, it is possible for me to raise each of these “what is” questions, and to find an answer to them, even within the limits of knowledge that I have sketched above. But further, these “what is” questions are some of the most important philosophical questions, and are almost limitless in number. For these are the kinds of questions that Socrates spent his whole life investigating, without ever being able to complete them; and they include such questions as, “what is moral,” “what is just,” “what is good,” “what is beautiful,” “what is knowledge,” “what is wisdom,” “what is motion,” “what is nature,” “what is consciousness,” and “what is time” – questions which are of immediate human interest, and which cut to the heart of our understanding of the world.

But, secondly, there is no need for us to restrict ourselves to what it is possible for us to know, or for the science of philosophy to limit itself to a study of the knowable world. For insofar as philosophizing is just a single individual’s attempts to understand the world around them, on the basis of what they believe with the most certainty or conviction, then it would also be possible to philosophize about the world as we believe it to be, and not only about that part of the world that we might happen to be able to know. For there is no need for us to know about a thing, in order to philosophize about it, or to investigate it scientifically, and rationally, and with seriousness and care.

Thus, for both of these reasons, the activity of philosophizing would still be possible, and might still be worthwhile, even if the limits of knowledge that I have laid out are correct.

18.

That much, then, about what knowledge is, and about what it means “to know,” and about the connection between “knowing” and “awareness,” and about the limits of our knowledge, and the possibility of a philosophic life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s