Knowledge Comes in Different Ways and Forms


In my weekly digest from Newsweek, I read an interesting article about the role of science in the political campaigns, better the absence of it. It seems that the Matthew Chapman, great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, had started a project to engage presidential candidates in a debate centered on science. “Everything in my family was assessed through some form of the scientific method,” says Chapman…It was just really peculiar to see people we were going to give trust to not addressing either the scientific issues nor the method by which people assess truth in the best possible way.”

The article is mostly about his failure to create any interest among the candidates, many of whom have already expressed a skeptical or more extreme position on the importance of scientific information in political conversations and policy. Not much new so far. I found his intentions great, but not much to show for them. What did intrigue me, however, were these closing paragraphs.

Dan Fagin, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, tracks the public discourse as a professor of science journalism at New York University. He begs to differ. “There will never be a science debate, at least not anytime soon, but that’s not because of the issues are complicated. It’s because the triumph of the hard right is that they convinced too many Republicans that science is just another partisan issue, another opinion. The solution is going to have to come from within the GOP.”

As the GOP shows no signs of grappling with that issue, the endless—nonpresidential—debate grows ever more bitter. … The Pew survey found that education levels do not always correlate with trust in science, a fact scientists and their supporters might consider before assuming their adversaries are duped. “Science is not the sole source of wisdom, an oracle,” Fagin says. “It’s the most powerful tool we have for understanding the world, but individual scientists are only human and subject to error. A little more humility would do us all a lot of good.”

I completely agree with Fagin that science has become a partisan issue but only because ideology has trumped reality in the right wing of the Republican party. But I think he errs in comparing partisan differences to differences in opinion. Differences in opinion are a fundamental reality stemming from the impossibility of ever knowing everything about the world. Notice I am using the word “knowing” here, not understanding. Fagin uses “understanding” in the last sentence and that is where the troubles he is writing about originate. We possess all kinds of knowledge, each one coming from the method by which it is produced. Aristotle defined several distinct classes in this manner. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he described three different approaches:

  1. Epistêmê
  2. Technê
  3. Phrónēsis

The use of approaches is important because the main difference between these classes is the way the knowledge is obtained. Our word closest to epistêmê is theoretical knowledge obtained by our senses and abstracted into technical terms. It corresponds closely to what we now call scientific knowledge or knowing why. The method for producing bona fide scientific knowledge is rigorously defined as the “scientific method” and has become legitimated by the institution of science over ages. The word, technê, is most closely translated as craft and is derived from the acquisition of principles that relate a particular practice to its results. The context for technê is making or doing not the disinterested, abstract nature of epistêmê. It is about knowing how. Aristotle viewed technê as a less perfect way of describing nature. The third, phrónēsis is best matched with wisdom. It relates to knowledge about how to live life and how to govern the affairs of humans. He gave it a distinctly political sense.

In more recent times, the German Philosopher, Martin Heidegger, reinterpreted Aristotle’s forms of knowledge giving different weights to them. I find his interpretations much more relevant to the Newsweek and related stories. Where Aristotle placed epistêmê at the top of his ladder of knowledge important, Heidegger places phrónēsis. In place of Aristotle’s fundamental categories he uses: póiesis (creation), praxis (living), and theōria (abstracting). He argues that these represent distinct forms of human action, each of which produces different kinds of knowledge, respectively, technê, phrónēsis and sophia. (Sophia and epistêmê are often confused and are confusing terms.) Heidegger describes phrónēsis as the most fundamental in enabling human beings to live effectively in the world and to work towards achieving the fullest manifestation of our uniqueness as being human. Technê is a way of being concerned with things and principles of production and theoria/sophia is a way of being concerned with eternal principles, abstracted from their instantiated occurrences.

To these forms of knowledge, all of which have an associated method or methods, we also use another common form, ungrounded opinion. Such opinion is “knowledge” for which we cannot ground though evidence in the form of unbiased observations or reasons outside of the methods of the three above-mentioned categories. Much of life is run according to such ungrounded opinions. Philosophers like Aristotle and Heidegger have made arguments for which of these is the most important in the lives of humans beings, but in our modern world we have strayed from their exacting scales and categorical bounds. And this is very serious.

Our democratic form of government rests on many principles, but, perhaps, the most fundamental is the rule of reason. We settle disputes about differences through reasoned procedures. That means we argue with each other on the basis of grounded facts, based on knowledge, a word that signifies a truth about the world. But we forget that knowledge comes in a number of different flavors, none of which have the same origin. We have learned that scientific knowledge is the best, that is most reliable, category when it come to describing natural phenomena, but, because it is made up only from abstract findings, often fails to produce results out in the real world. Technê has in many ways come to be even more important than theōria because we tend to apply its worldly form, technology and technocracy, to solve our problems without bothering to fully know why they are occurring or what the complete impact of use of technê will be. That’s because the methods of science are inadequate to deal with the instantaneous complexity of the real world.

The third form of knowledge, phrónēsis is almost entirely missing today from our public deliberations. I find it is important to distinguish this class of knowledge from all the others and usually refer to it as “understanding.” There are methods to acquire such knowledge, but all take a lot of time and patience (a virtue in short supply). Pragmatism, as I have written, is perhaps the most codified and reliable. All require living within the system from which the understanding is to come, and observing what is happening, especially if the observers are intervening deliberately or not. Heidegger saw this as the most important as it was closest to allowing human beings to gain an understanding of the kind of beings they are. The absence of phrónēsis is to me the most critical issue about the place of knowledge, not the one made in the Newsweek story.

The rule of reason, while sounding as the best way to go forward, has several serious flaws based of the limitations of the sources of knowledge that feed it. Scientific knowledge, based on an objective world produces a singular but partial, result of what is truthful, and can be and is used to dominate arguments. Technê used without knowledge of its complete set of outcomes produces unintended consequences that can even destroy or severely damage societies as many argue is happening today. Ungrounded opinion, which is more and more prevalent today, always ends up in some form of domination because there is simply no rational way of settling differences. It is behind the winner-take-all nature of politics today.

We need to seek more understanding of our situations and issues, not more knowledge of the other types. Only through understanding can any reasoned solution emerge. Theōria has a very important place as does technê. Even ungrounded opinions may be necessary, but if they are not all concatenated into wisdom or phrónēsis, we are surely not going fulfill our historic dreams. Even those dreams need a revisitation based on more wisdom as they were originally created with a privileged place for science. The research I have done over some years suggests that the failure to be clear about the sources and kinds of “knowledge” we use in our deliberations is responsible for many of our policy failures, big and small. Only if conversations have a clear understanding about the nature of the information that is to used do they have a chance of being concluded happily. Just look at what is happening around the Globe for instances of this failure.