Next to the quest for survival and life itself, I would argue that the quest for knowledge is one of the oldest endeavours of our species. Probably the first ‘documented’ attempts to understand this world and interpret our place in it are captured in the cave paintings. The currently oldest known cave painting is estimated to be 44,000 years old. It was found in Indonesia not so long ago and archaeologists think that in the future even older paintings will be found elsewhere1.
What was in the minds of those first painters, what were their thoughts, feelings? Not all cave paintings are similar in the sense that not all of them contain a recognizable narrative. However, some of the nowadays most famous ones do. Researchers pay extra attention to such paintings because they serve as evidence suggesting the development of our abstract, symbolic thinking capacity (the kind of thinking that you and I do daily often without noticing it). They are the stories we tell. Stories represent arguably the oldest method of how we humans try to understand the world and ourselves in it. We create these narratives and they, in turn, tell a story about us, their creators. Although the content changes, the quest remains – our quest for knowledge. But why do we seek knowledge? How do we recognize it when we find it? Put differently, what do we consider as knowledge? As opposed to what? Can we actually, truly know something and, if so, in what way? These are some of the fundamental questions that are explored by the branch of philosophy called epistemology.
Epistemology is defined as “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion”. The word ‘epistemology’ was reportedly used for the first time in the 19th century but its meaning is derived from much older Greek words: epistēmē meaning ‘knowledge, understanding, skill’ and logos meaning ‘word, reason’2 and in some interpretations also ‘account’ (e.g. ‘anthropology’ as giving an ‘account’, logos, of ‘man’, anthropos)3. So, we could say that epistemology is an account of knowledge and understanding. A curious side remark – ‘logic’ from Greek logikē means the ‘art of reason’2. I wonder how many of us today would link reason with art. For me, it wasn’t the first thing on my mind but this element of surprise is what makes it even more interesting.
Having dipped my toes in the vast ocean of epistemology there are two points I consider important to mention about our quest for knowledge from a philosophical point of view:
- knowledge is seen to be linked with understanding (both meanings are captured in the same Greek word epistēmē),
- a distinction is made between what can be considered knowledge and what – mere opinion (see the definition of epistemology above).
Both points are connected and seem rather straightforward on the surface. If examined, however, things turn out to be far less self-evident. For instance, if knowing is a precondition of understanding, then it is crucial to have clarity about what I consider as knowledge. In other words, if I don’t know, whether my belief is knowledge, I cannot be sure that I understand. But surely I must know when I know something. So, is my argument simply that I know because I know? Although we are often certain we know what knowledge is as opposed to, say, mere opinion, do we really know it? If yes, then we should be able to explain where opinion ends and knowledge starts (or vice versa). I am sure we all can come up with examples of both scenarios – where we can and where we cannot explain. I know that 2+2=4 but I only think I know what is causing my headache, for instance. Therefore, what characterizes our perceived ability to present an explanation of knowledge is the feeling of certainty about the truth of something. This is a rather broad characteristic but it manages to bring forward something that most of us seek in knowledge – certainty.
Think about it – would you go on a quest for any kind of knowledge, if you thought it would bring you no certainty? If your immediate reaction is something like “No way, that would be a waste of time!”, then you intuitively link knowledge with the pursuit of certainty. Before we start blaming our systems of education for a too narrow approach (I am not defending them though) we should remember that this has been humanity’s grand project for at least 2,500 years when the first ancient Greek philosophers sought certainty as a basis of understanding. Despite Socrates’ famous claim that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing, he was confident that there is a difference between mere opinion and knowledge. Since he was certain about it, he argued that he knew it to be so. That is, at least in part, a reason for his other famous statement that an unexamined life is not worth living. Examining one’s life meant consciously discovering what is true in one’s views and what is a mere belief or an unjustified opinion. Knowledge, therefore, is seen here as a path to the understanding of truth, and it can only be called knowledge if it is a path of examining.
This approach has profoundly influenced us and what we see as knowledge. In our Western cultures, we place a high value on reason, critical thinking, research. Only recently we have started dipping our toes in other sources of understanding (such as insights that come through meditation) but we are not yet ready to call these other sources knowledge. Perhaps it is too early or perhaps the shift will happen too gradually to notice. Nevertheless, there have also been other voices in the history of Western philosophy who doubted the feasibility of this certainty project. From Hume’s 18th century argument that generalisations from past experiences into the future are not rationally justified (the problem of induction) to 20th century Popper’s recognition that all knowledge is tentative, and to his contemporary Kuhn’s proposed structure of scientific revolutions where existing paradigms shift once they run into a crisis and another cycle begins with the establishment of new paradigms. Perhaps we can cautiously consider that humanity is slowly accepting the possibility that certainty about the truth of something is not and maybe cannot be permanent. Especially if we are on the examining path of knowledge.
- Adamson, P. (2014) Classical Philosophy, a history of philosophy without any gaps. New York: Oxford University Press