Is the metaphor that knowledge is a structure really the best way to look at knowledge?
Epistemology is the philosophical study of human knowledge. This branch tries to define knowledge, figure out how someone knows something and most any other aspect involving “knowledge” normally in a sense of knowledge that humans can have or claim to have. Assuming that one thinks that human knowledge does exist and is attainable, it seems that this knowledge is most often pictured as a sort of structure, with a foundation which is the fundamental beginnings of human knowledge and then a super-structure upon which the rest of an individual’s knowledge is hung. My question is: is this really the best way to look at human knowledge? Is this sort of structure really the only way human knowledge could work? What are other possible ways to consider human knowledge and can it relay any insights to human knowledge?
First off, is this foundation-super-structure image really the best/only way to consider knowledge? I do not believe so. It seems to be that although certainly a useful metaphor, philosophy has ended up limiting itself too much with this foundation. Using only this image would be akin to only using stone as the foundation for all of your buildings, but there are other materials with which to ground something: cement for example. How would the building change with this simple change? Would it change? I do not think there would be a serious change in how knowledge is viewed if a new “material” were used as the foundation, but one does not know until it is tried.
Let us assume that the normal foundation material for this epistemological structure is stone and mortar. This normal foundational material seems to be some sort of either sense data or knowledge which a philosopher thinks all humans are born with innately (i.e. a priori or a posteriori knowledge), usually a combination of the two, the one that is focused upon being the stone and then the other being the mortar. To me, it makes sense to try “simpler” materials before one goes on to more “advanced” materials for a foundation.
So, the first type of foundation to look at is the pad stone, otherwise known as basically rocks at certain places to help hold the building up. A fairly simple sort of foundation, now what are our rocks to be for this? How about we try to build something with only sense data as our foundation, where do we end up then? Seemingly, as Descartes, so famously brought up, this would be a very poor house of knowledge; it doesn’t take much to deceive the senses thus bringing the building crumbling down. So that is out, how about reasoning maybe that can make a sturdier foundation. Although sturdy this seems to lead to a very small house indeed, what can you do with simple reasoning and nothing else? Come to conclusions of what is logically valid and invalid is about all really from what I can see. Although this house is as strong as any could be, one cannot even stand up in it. What could be another pad stone material? Some other form of a priori knowledge it seems, something that is given to us besides just reasoning, again though, there is only so far you can go with a small amount of givens. Again, Descartes tried this and he basically got to cogito ergo sum, the existence of God and a handful of other things, not much of a knowledge building still, at least not for me. Or you can assume Plato’s forgotten ideals and then build from there, but that is a bit too simple really for this late-night thought experiment, so that will be left behind. So, it appears that pad stones aren’t good enough of foundations for this house of knowledge we are trying to build. On a side note, can you use this knowledge for the memory castle activity to help you remember a list? That could be a fun mind-twister.
This next type of foundation is using timber and having it stuck into the ground. What is our epistemological timber though? Something that is fairly widespread, simple to work with and relatively cheap is what we are looking for as an analogue to this material. How about language, language is certainly widespread, intuitive to work with and people like to talk (if you don’t believe this last one refer to any spoken conversation you’ve ever had AND every single piece of written material you’ve of read, including this, why else would I write so much about such a topic? Simply because I have thoughts I want to get out in the end). Language also seems to just take care of itself and grow much like trees do, or at least did so it seems that this could be a good metaphorical wood with which to build a knowledge structure. So you take language and stick it into the fertile soil of the human mind, hopefully you take care not to cut down every linguistic tree, keeping one or two for shade too. This seems somewhat like language itself anyway, the hidden part of language is the part in the ground and then we have anything you ever say or share in some way with the world outside your mind, the rest of the wood not stuck in the ground. Now what can we do with this? Well, with language we can certainly get logic so we have that to help us put together our materials. Language would also allow us to name things in the outside world, if we assume there is one (for without it we’d basically be stuck back in the same position as logic, thus failure). The problem is that this is assuming we now have sense data to, so that we can see, feel, hear, touch, taste or in some other way sense this outside world which we can now name with language. Logic, sense data and language now that is a bit too much to assume so quickly in this foundation I think. So we are back to just language and it appears that we cannot do too much simply with language either. I am not sure of any good wood analogues for now; maybe I’ll come up with some at a later date and continue trying to work with this.
So pad stones don’t work, nor do simple wooden foundations, we have already mentioned stone/stone and mortar foundations. These seem to work, relatively well but it feels like something is missing. I want to say there may be a more complicated material out there with which to build an epistemological building but I am not sure what it could be. I will have to think about that further and do some more reading. One thing that can be changed though for these “foundations” which isn’t the material is how deep the foundation goes. Most of the foundations I’ve been dealing with I have been looking at in the “shallow” sense of a foundation, otherwise not a deep foundation like used for really tall or heavy structures. These structures require a much deeper foundation in order to support them properly. So how can we make these materials of epistemological foundations deeper? It seems the quickest way to get deeper is to try to get to the subconscious level the a priori, internal, pre-logic, instinctive, intuitive level, usually this is considered mentally deeper, or I think so anyway. So now, how do we build deep foundations with wood or the stone? Pad-stones are by definition not deep foundations so they will not be considered.
It my opinion, the language timber with which I tried to build a foundation can already be considered a deep foundation due to the nature of how individuals learn a language so I guess when a new analogue has been imagined that will have to be revisited.
The final foundational material is stone and masonry (logic and sense data). Now how do we make this a deep foundation? It would seem that both of these are already deep insofar as we, as humans, cannot just turn off our perceptions and it generally seems to be agreed upon that humans are born with basic logic. I cannot come up with a way to argue against the sense perceptions right away so I will have to drop that one. So logic, maybe logic is where the shallowness of our foundation is. The question still remains, how do I argue against this? Some of the basic logical formulas do seem quite intuitive; I will have to ponder that some more too.
So it appears I am at a dead end for now on the epistemological structure. Now to try a different angle, what is this idea of a structure is simply wrong and using this metaphor is hindering the human understanding of knowledge. Maybe knowledge is more of a web, possibly an expanding room/horizon, a tree even, there are many more I am certain but let us explore the similarities and differences of these other metaphors.