How to Define and How to Obscure Knowledge

One may question whether sociological or economic accounts of the knowledge society need to define knowledge. As soon as they do, however, quite different views surface. The best examples (also in the sense of solid, not simply deficient considerations) are found in the classical theories on the topic. Drucker (1969), probably the first writer to offer a conception of the knowledge society, was brief in definitional matters. Using an approach that has since become widespread (outside philosophy), he also made a specific point: “Knowledge, that is, the systematic organization of information and concepts,... makes apprenticeship obsolete. Knowledge substitutes systematic learning for exposure to experience” (p. 268). In context, Drucker focused even more on issues of application: Knowledge is analyzed as crucial in increasing the productivity of labor.

Four years later, Bell (1973) highlighted the opposite side when he noted a “new centrality of theoretical knowledge, the primacy of theory over empiricism” (p. 343, his italics). Accordingly, basic science is the main reference when he defines knowledge as “a set of organized statements of facts or ideas, presenting a reasoned judgment or an experimental result, which is transmitted to others through some communication medium in some systematic form” (p. 175). This definition has remained popular in descriptions of the recent, computer-based take-off of the knowledge society (see Castells, 1996, p. 17, for example). But the focus on explicit statements cannot account for a central novelty that characterizes the work of contemporary knowledge workers or symbol analysts (Reich, 1991)—the importance of situated problem-solving, which demands capacities of embodied or organizational knowledge. Such a capacity is probably at stake when Willke (1998) tries to define knowledge in structures where it matters “not as truth but as a resource” (p. 161): “Whereas information designates systemically relevant differences, knowledge originates when such information is embedded in contexts of experience” (pp. 161-162, my translation).[1] Unlike the standardized situations Drucker had in mind, this experience presumably affords more than textbooks can convey.

Historical differences set aside, the given examples seem to offer three systematically distinguishable accounts of knowledge:

  • 1. Knowledge as a systematic set of applicable recipes
  • 2. Knowledge as an organized body of theoretical statements
  • 3. Knowledge as a developed capacity of situated problem-solving

These accounts do not necessarily constitute or presuppose different concepts of knowledge. Maybe they are really only about different contexts in which knowledge matters and thus give different perspectives on the same thing. But if there should be an underlying concept of knowledge, it would be helpful to have a definition making it explicit.

The preceding quotations also hint at a strong option: They all identify knowledge as information that is relatively organized and that can thus orient perception and action. If one adds the concept of data to that approach, a clear structural picture emerges:

Data is considered as a coded resource of operations, it is transformed into information when it is integrated into a relevant context where it makes a difference as a difference, it gains relevance and meaning relative to an integrating system. Information is transformed into knowledge when it is integrated into a context of experience. (Fuchs, 2004, par. 11).[2]

Such a model leaves open different possibilities of how information is organized and which kind of context is relevant. Following written instructions fits, as does employing individual mind maps in complex social constellations. Of course, both the definition of information and the notion of a context of experience call for further explication. As far as necessary, it is given below. But two more principal problems should be tackled first. On the one hand, the redundancy of organizing data into information and organizing information into knowledge gives pause. Is it really necessary to draw two distinctions of the same kind? If knowledge should not mean only very dense information (processed in human culture), one needs to spell out the specific ways in which it is organized and becomes operative. On the other hand, distinguishing knowledge from information may involve more than specifying a context. Semantically, knowledge is characterized by strong cognitive optimism— or by the kind of relation to truth that authors like Willke try to dismiss. Although information may be insufficient or misleading, knowledge is supposed to be about what is really the case. If someone says that you know and not only reasonably believe something (e.g., about natural laws, financial markets, the name of a country’s president), she or he means you are right. I try to show how this peculiar trait matters in social analysis. But first and more basically, the question is what it means for the definition of knowledge.

At this juncture one naturally turns to philosophy. I leave aside some interesting knowledge philosophies of the past, namely, of knowledge as systematic selfreflection of a culture (Hegel) or as an elucidation of our being-in-the-world (Heidegger). I also refrain from concentrating on the special case of scientific knowledge and the philosophy of science. Instead, I consider contemporary debates about knowledge in general, discourses in which reduced ontological claims, precise definitions, and aims of wide conceptual extension are to be expected. Sadly, most of these debates turn out to be almost literally footnotes to Plato and not even based on a precise reading of the text. As a result of this discussion, the need for a fresh pragmatic account will become discernible.

Where contemporary philosophers turn to defining knowledge, they almost inevitably start with the classic paradigm: justified true belief. The passages in Plato suggesting this definition of knowledge are found in the dialogues Meno (trans. 1990) and Theatetus (trans. 1996). In both dialogues, the term episteme (knowledge or even science) is defined in similar ways:

  • • as meta logou alethes doxa, true belief/opinion with reasoning/explanation (Theatetus, 201c) and
  • • as orthe or alethes doxa, correct or true belief/opinion, together with aitias logismos, an account of the reason/origin (Meno, 97b-98a).

In one of the dialogues, the proposed definition fails; in the other it is accepted. What is of interest here is only what can be made of them (which actually involves one additional reference to the argument of Meno). Contemporary debates show that, for example, a narrow Cartesian interpretation is possible. Various authors accentuate that only individuals can believe and thus know something, and some commentators even take the degree of belief as decisive: Whoever is not certain is no candidate for knowing. I call this stance Cartesian because it makes individual consciousness central. Other scholars, such as the British philosopher Edward Craig (1990), have argued that belief does not matter at all (pp. 12-17) or have developed notions of group knowledge and belief (see below, section on Social Epistemology and Spatial Difference). The whole range of positions, however, leaves the structure of the Platonic definition remarkably untouched. This lack of conceptual innovation is even clearer from the fact that most discussions have focused on the meaning of justified or on the question in which sense reasons turn true belief into knowledge. A glimpse of these debates is useful to gain a sense of where the discussion got stuck.

The main idea of asking what justified means can serve as a starting point: What if I entertain a belief that is both justified and true, but only accidentally so? Examples and thought experiments relating to this question abound.[3] A simple one should be sufficient for my purposes in this chapter. Suppose, for instance, that I reasonably believe the refrigerator contains something to drink because I put orange juice in. And suppose that there actually is something to drink in there—but not the juice I am thinking about, for someone took it out and replaced it with milk without my realizing it. It would thereby not seem correct to say that I know the true state of affairs. Different solutions have been proposed, among them creative ones such as recurring to intellectual virtues (which, as virtues, imply success).[4] The general pattern may be derived from the initial question about the role of justification: Justified true belief that is not just contingently true.

Yet this extended definition is not the only possible solution. Goldman (1999), a main proponent of social epistemology, proposed distinguishing between different kinds or degrees of knowledge instead. In cases of “weak knowledge” (p. 23), true belief alone is sufficient. Reasons hardly matter when I ask, “Who in this room knows the capital of Cambodia?” But there are also cases where one insists on having “strong knowledge,” which then has to be qualified by “some additional element or elements” (p. 23) “such as justification or warrant for the belief, and the exclusion of alternative possibilities” (p. 23). Goldman even develops a third model of quasiinfallible, “super-strong knowledge” (p. 23), but he does so mainly to show that there is little or no practical need for such a concept. This argument about context is also what I take to be the message of his account: It is necessary to ask which understanding of knowledge makes sense in what kind of everyday circumstances.

Following this line, a general critique of the debates in question can be mounted. It is certainly laudable that contemporary philosophers start with everyday language and intuitions when they discuss components and definitions of knowledge. But it is not sure that these sources are differentiated enough to pin down the true and exact meaning of a notion that signifies diverse and complex practices. Moreover, the usual approach focuses only on a very small segment of the various ways in which people actually talk about knowing and knowledge. An aspect that will turn out to be crucial is that analytic philosophers almost invariably explicate the verb to know when they want to find out something about the noun knowledge. In a classical study, for instance, Chisholm (1989) proposed the following “definition of knowledge” (p. 98): “h is known by S = Def (1) h is true; (2) S accepts h; (3) h is evident for S” (followed by an unnecessarily complicated fourth clause) (p. 98).

Unlike such definitions, everyday language seems to distinguish between verb and noun in important respects. Whereas knowing is exclusively attributed to persons (or, controversially, to quasi subjects like groups or clever animals), knowledge may also be situated in objective media or structures and transpersonal organizations. I do not really claim that my computer knows what I wrote during the last few years (even if it has it all stored), but no formal reason keeps me from saying that the knowledge of the National Security Agency (NSA) is frighteningly extensive, that the library of Alexandria housed most of the knowledge of classical antiquity, or that Wikipedia increasingly encompasses the basic common knowledge of the present world.

Such uses of language do not already imply an alternative definition of knowledge. They are as useful and potentially misleading as uses of to know are. But if there is no sensible way to decide where to start, it is appropriate to adopt an alternative strategy of using common language and practice to derive and test definitions. Instead of determining without ambiguity what is meant by one specific way to talk about knowledge and knowing—or, worse, intuitions about both—it would be instructive to ask which set of practices and capacities people typically refer to when applying these notions. Marginal cases such as group convictions and tacit or implicit knowledge may remain problematic then, but much is gained when they can at least be related to a core understanding.

  • [1] “Wahrend Informationen systemspezifisch relevante Unterschiede bezeichnen, entsteht Wissen,wenn solche Informationen in bestimmte Erfahrungskontexte eingebunden sind.” (Willke, 1998,pp. 161-162). An interesting question would be whether strict social systems theory is really compatible with the strong accent on experience, particularly that of the individual.
  • [2] Fuchs (2004) does not quite agree with the structural outline (which he ascribes to authors suchas Willke instead)—but only because his own project is a general theory for “all self-organizingphysical, biological, and social systems” (par. 11). According to Fuchs, attention must thus bedrawn to restrictions: “[T]he triad is not data-information-knowledge, but data-knowledge-practi-cal knowledge as a manifestation of information in the human realm” (par. 11).
  • [3] A major part of the debate refers to a short text by Gettier (1963), after whom the said thoughtexperiments are named Gettier-style cases.
  • [4] A resulting definition reads: “Knowledge is a state of (true) belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue” (Zagzebski, 1996, p. 271).
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