Epistemology, or the nature of knowledge, is often different for each person, from the standpoint of perspective. In other words, each person sees knowledge differently, and that can make what is "true" for one person not "true" for someone else. James Frederick Ferrier, a Scottish philosopher, was the one who coined the term "epistemology." It is a term that not only relates to the nature and the field of knowledge, but it is also used to determine how people know the things that they know (Moser & Vander Nat, 2001). What makes knowledge real and true are not easily understood concept, because what a person knows is always able to be challenged. One could then make the argument that the "knowing" would be a belief, rather than actual knowledge. Getting to the nature of what is really true when it comes to knowledge begs answers to the following important questions:
What, actually, is knowledge and how is it defined?
How do people go about gaining knowledge?
3. What do people really know about themselves and their world?
4. How are people able to know these things with certainty?
There are two specific kinds of knowledge. There is what is termed propositional knowledge, or "knowledge that," such as would be used in mathematics (Cooper, 1999). There is also "knowledge how," which is harder to clearly define and considered to be much more fluid and changing (Cooper, 1999). It lacks the concrete nature of the "knowledge that" category. For example, a person who understands that two plus two is equal to four mostly understands that because it is able to be proven conclusively. That understanding is not the same as being able to know how to add the two numbers together in order to get the correct result (Feldman, 2003). Both forms of knowledge are important, however, and in some cases the knowledge how matters more than anything that could be found in the knowledge that category.
Riding a bicycle could be used as an example of this, because it is not necessary to understand the physics of a bicycle in order to ride one. Instead, the rider has to be aware of how to balance, steer, and pedal in order to move the bicycle - and, by extension, the rider - from one place to another. The knowledge that (the physics) does not matter for the knowledge how (the operation) to be successful. The other issue that is often seen with knowledge is that it is not necessarily an easy thing on which people can agree. One does not have to be a philosopher to understand that some people who "know" something do not actually know it, no matter how much they wish to believe that to be the case. These individuals confuse what they "know" (i.e. what can be proven) with what they "believe" to be true (Cooper, 1999).
That can be not only confusing for them but confusing for others around them and for people who do not agree with the position that they have taken on the issue or the way in which they defend it. Even modern-day philosophers still wrestle with epistemological ideas. That conflict between what is known and what is believed can produce a problem called cognitive dissonance (Feldman, 2003). This can be very uncomfortable, and it occurs when a person holds two idea that conflict with one another or are contradictory to one another in some way. These ideas do not all have to be facts, as they can be attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs, as well. Many people who have this problem seek to eliminate the dissonance, and that is understandable. In order to do this, they change their behaviors and their attitudes. They may also change their beliefs in order to bring them into line with what the facts show them. Of course, some people also ignore the facts, no matter how strong those facts appear to be.
If the person does change his or her attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in order to go along with the facts, and then the facts are found to be incorrect, the level of dissonance can be much greater than before (Feldman, 2003). The person will be forced to adapt to a new set of facts after he or she has already made many changes to his or her belief system, and that can cause anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, and embarrassment (Cooper, 1999). These feelings can all appear from cognitive dissonance, and that makes life more difficult for the people who experience it. There will always be the potential for conflict between belief and knowledge, and there will always be the potential to see dissonance. Fortunately, there is both therapy and learning opportunities for people who are struggling with that issue. The nature of knowledge can be confusing and difficult to understand, but it is highly valuable to study.
But, what is the actual purpose of knowledge, and how is knowledge acquired? That is the question that individuals such as Cooper (1999) and Feldman (2003) have worked to answer, and that are still discussed today. The purpose of knowledge is something that could easily be argued. In other words, one person's belief as to why knowledge is needed may be far different from that of another person. It is also important to consider that what knowledge actually is will differ between people. Some people see their beliefs as facts, while others are more clear about the separation between those two areas. Because of that, it is impossible to define the purpose of knowledge unless one looks at all different types of knowledge from all different perspectives, and attempts to define each one. That would be a nearly unbelievable undertaking.
The means by which knowledge is acquired can vary, because there are so many ways to get knowledge about something (Nonaka & Nishiguchi, 2001). Most people think of school and college when they think about how they acquire the knowledge that they have, but there is much more to it than that. For example, one starts acquiring knowledge as a baby or toddler. Crying brings parents or other caregivers to see what the problem is, and touching something hot is painful. When a young child does something wrong there is punishment, and when he or she does something right, there is praise. Those are all parts of the knowledge equation, even if children do not realize that is what is taking place in their lives. As they grow, they learn to dress themselves and tie their shoes. They learn to talk and they learn to read. They also learn about family life and human interaction. Those are lessons they will take with them throughout their entire life, no matter what else they do.
Overall, everything is knowledge (Cooper, 1999; Feldman, 2003). Individuals who are interested in learning more about their world can do that through schooling - and through the internet - but there are so many other ways that knowledge is acquired. A great deal of knowledge is collected when one does not deliberately realize that one is learning. That can be a very important issue, because some people actually resist "being taught" something. They do not want to be forced to learn, but that does not mean that they are not interested in gaining knowledge. For these people, knowledge has to be something that they acquire on their own terms, so that they remain interested in it and feel as though they are not having others "facts" forced on them. Many great thinkers and philosophers acquired knowledge this way in the past, and that practice continues for many philosophers and thinkers today.
Each time a person hears, sees, does, or in any way experiences something new, he or she is acquiring more knowledge. Whether he or she sees it that way - as fact and not belief - will often depend on the person. Not everyone sees things in the same manner, of course, and that is something that everyone should consider. What might be "knowledge" to someone will only be speculation to someone else (Tsoukas, 2005). This is especially true for areas of life such as religion, where there are many different belief systems and a large number of people are convinced that their belief is "fact" and is the only "correct" interpretation of what is "true." Other areas of life can have these kinds of discrepancies, as well, but religion is generally the most cited when discussing this particular issue.
Many areas of life are deeply affected by knowledge, and how much a person knows about different aspects of a particular issue is very important. Leadership and management require knowledge, for example, as well as an understanding of that knowledge. In my life and profession that is doubly important. I work as a director for a major oil and gas company full time, but I also work part time for Big Brothers Big Sisters. There, I work with the…