A Definition of the Term “Knowledge”

The following stems from a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with our weekly discussion group, after a question about the meaning of Truth was raised.

When dealing with philosophical matters, I find that one of the most difficult, yet essential, problems we face is in carefully defining what various terms mean.  More often than not in serious conversation, I will find that what I mean by a particular word is at odds with what others interpret that word to mean.  Perhaps this is an issue only of my idiosyncratic use of some words, but I am convinced such problems are very widespread.

The word “knowledge”, as applied to a particular item or field of items, I understand to mean the accumulated content of a concept or a hierarchy of concepts an individual holds regarding those items.  By “content of a concept”, I mean the common attributes or variables that have been abstracted from the observation (physical or mental observation) of concrete examples.  Per Ayn Rand’s framework, these common attributes, with their measurements omitted, define the concept.  I further limit the application of the term knowledge to those conceptual frameworks which have been created with appropriate use of reason – insisting in each step of construction that the framework is integrated with the rest of the individual’s knowledge. 

I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate word to describe the content of invalid frameworks of concepts in which proper validation has not been performed, and haven’t yet resolved this problem.  My limitation allows the use of the term knowledge to imply certainty – we are certain of the accuracy of our knowledge.

It should further be noted that I limit the term “knowledge” to apply exclusively to the content of an individual’s conceptual framework.  There is no social knowledge under this definition, though there certainly is shared knowledge.  The attempt to communicate knowledge between individuals – through conversation, writing, public speech – I recognize as at best partially successful.  Separate individuals can develop similar conceptual frameworks through communication, but these knowledges will never be exactly matching.  This issue merits its own phrase, and I call it “the problem of communication”.

Next up – defining truth.

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2 thoughts on “A Definition of the Term “Knowledge”

  1. bILL

    Recently, I read an article from Skeptical Inquirer magazine on developing the practice of critical thinking. The author stressed not only scientific skepticism, which is reasonably framed as necessary for the progress of scientific knowledge, but went so far as to imply that skepticism must be applied generally. I found his ideas a bit disturbing, in that they seemed to remove us from practically any notion of certainty in our framing of concepts. As an example, he noted that the differences between languages not only pose the obvious differences in the mental activity of thinking (different words for a meaning), but that language differences are much more fundamental to the process of conscious thought, and in fact erect fundamendal differences in how people born to different languages think. If true, this seems like a hopeless situation. We can have no true knowledge (we must be skeptical), and in fact, fully commensurate knowledge is not even possible for people that speak different languages! Is this what is known as “skepticism” in the philosophical sense? I hate it.

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  2. aturner Post author

    Indeed skepticism in the form you present is a manifestation of Kant – we can never know anything about the real world because of the inherent human condition. We can never be certain of anything. Kant is not the first, merely the clearest statement of this position and its consequences. Ancient Greece had the Skeptics, and they are one root of this evil.

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