What counts as knowledge?

Kamakshi Balasubramanian

The first article in this series (on Theory of Knowledge) introduced personal and impersonal knowledge. Impersonal knowledge is also called shared knowledge, although that expression can be misleading.1 In this article, we shall explore the kind of evidence or justification that claims in those two kinds of knowledge (personal and impersonal) require in order to be accepted as knowledge.

Let the class look at some of the claims from the previous lesson.
1. I know that I am hungry.
2. I know that there are bacteria in my gut.
3. I know that things fall when dropped in this room.
4. I know that my friend is going to be sad today.

When one makes these claims, is it reasonable to ask how one recognizes a sensation (hunger), knows a fact (bacteria in the gut), explains a phenomenon (things fall when dropped), or understands an emotional state.

Let the students write down answers to the questions below.

  1. How do you know that you are hungry? (Answers could include the following: My stomach is rumbling; I am getting sleepy; I feel tired; I am dreaming of food, etc.)
  2. How do you know that there are bacteria in your gut? (From my biology class or science textbook; because I can digest my food; because we can see the bacteria through a microscope, etc.)
  3. How do you know that things fall when dropped in this room? (Anyone can see it, if I drop something here; because gravity is acting on the objects when dropped, etc.)
  4. How do you know that your friend is going to be sad today? (I know my friend well; she lost her …; she did not..; etc.)

Once students have come up with their several answers, plausible and implausible – it is best to continue to be open in this exercise – it is time to group the responses. I am deliberately adding ‘implausible’ answers, because, following Edward de Bono, I believe that every response is useful at this stage, if only to show how far the human mind can stretch logic.2

Once again, students should be guided to recognize which are personal knowledge claims here, and which are impersonal knowledge claims.

In discussing those responses, be sure to emphasize that impersonal knowledge (as demonstrated in the examples) requires justification by authority (textbook, science lesson, etc.) and/or observation (anyone can see it). Impersonal knowledge thus relies on authority and observation of phenomena; it can also rely on memory and logic.

Personal knowledge claims, by contrast, generally require only assertion of the individual’s own personal acquaintance. Such claims need not, and often cannot, be supported by evidence outside the experience of the individual making a claim. Thus, personal knowledge claims we make rely generally on intuition, introspection, faith, natural ability, feeling, practice of a skill, and to some extent memory and authority.

Here are two suggested activities to reinforce what Ways of Knowing help establish impersonal knowledge claims. Later, in a similar fashion, we shall explore Ways of Knowing related to personal knowledge.

The author is an educator and writer with significant experience teaching at secondary and tertiary levels. She can be reached at papukamakshi@gmail.com.

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