Ways of Knowing

A perpetual pet peeve is the concept of “different ways of knowing”. All too often, it’s a shorthand for “Don’t take my cherished beliefs away!”

Sometimes it refers to real phenomena. Observation is an important part of collecting information about our world, but our society has a nasty tendency to limit the groups of people we consider to be valid observers. Or we get so focused on rigorous strategies for making observations that we forget that our ideas about what we should observe come from less rigorous, less formal processes. We exclude personal observation, particularly from marginalized groups, instead of understanding it as a first step to more structured observations.

Much of the time, though, what people refer to as “ways of knowing” have nothing to do with epistemology. What we’re talking about isn’t knowing. We aren’t talking about ways to collect information we can rely on, but ways to conceptualize the world. We’re talking about ways to share perspectives or frames of reference with other people. We’re talking about making things make sense, not figuring out what is and what is not.

It’s still busy around here, so I don’t have time to flesh the idea out, but I wanted to throw it out for discussion. How much of the confusion over “ways of knowing” really because we should be differentiating between those and “ways of understanding” or “ways of communicating”.


Ways of Knowing

15 thoughts on “Ways of Knowing

  1. 1

    How much of the confusion over “ways of knowing” really because we should be differentiating between those and “ways of understanding” or “ways of communicating”.

    The only time I’ve ever heard someone actually, in real life, use the ‘ways of knowing’ argument was in opposition to science. And all of the times I’ve heard it in real life that person has either done so in defense of a religious claim, a general type of spiritualism, or alternative medicine.

    Based on this anecdotal, personal, and thus non-scientific data set :), I conclude this is not just a miscommunication. The folks who use this trope are really claiming one can draw reliable conclusions from revelation, a book, or other source of authority. They are claiming to know about real things that really exist, via non-empirical means. They are rarely or never making a statement like, ‘the world can be viewed through glasses of different colors, I invite you to try on mine.’

  2. 2

    I’ve heard “I just know” or “ways of knowing” in two forms:

    1) Religious or spiritual arguments when the person “just knows” they’re right because of, IMO, whatever system or experiences the person holds that form a familiarity with the subject. People who spend their whole lives believing X typically start or react against hearing that, rather, Y is true because they “know” it isn’t. It’s really just that they’ve never been exposed to Y, or they’ve been strongly indoctrinated toward X. It’s incredibly dishonest and they are essentially saying theirs is the only viewpoint.

    2) Lazy people who know but are unable or unwilling to describe the path they took to knowing. Whether that be knowing via the 5 basic physical senses, a mathematical proof, evolved survival instincts, it could be any example where the mechanism is poorly understood or too much effort to convey. I find that it took me a long time to recognize that communication was an active interaction that took effort, and I’m still (probably forever) mindfully trying to pay attention to that to improve it. I think that most people I interact with don’t have that awareness of what it takes to communicate an idea and so they haven’t learned or been trained how to ask the right questions of themselves to do so, and therefore to describe how they actually know something.

  3. 3

    Well, I “know” that my gut is much more trustworthy than my brain. Because my brain has been fucked with severely, so my gut took over to inform me whether I actually liked something, or whether I was really happy with something.
    Doesn’t mean I have a magical gut, it means that certain conscious thoughts were not “allowed”. So, yeah, I would say that there are several ways of “knowing”, but they’re not supernatural but based on our natural perception of the world and the filtering and categorizing our brain does.
    Many mothers claim to have a “maternal instinct” that tells them something special about their children other people can’t know, especially when they’re ill.
    I call bullshit.
    Those women know those children very well, the same as every primary caregiver does and their brain constantly gets 100s and 1000s of data points that are compared to the saved patterns in the brain. Only that most of them never register consciously like most things we see/hear/touch/feel/smell never do

  4. 4

    Much of the time, though, what people refer to as “ways of knowing” have nothing to do with epistemology. What we’re talking about isn’t knowing. We aren’t talking about ways to collect information we can rely on, but ways to conceptualize the world. We’re talking about ways to share perspectives or frames of reference with other people. We’re talking about making things make sense, not figuring out what is and what is not.


    If I could describe how I try to organize the way I communicate with people, it would be “analogic thinking/speaking”. I feel like I’m instinctually storing little interesting examples of things all the time to be used later. When I was a kid one of my friends said I was a “Depository of useless information”.

    I think that is why I’m fascinated by the whole “Image Macro” phenomenon. If you consider image boards and human creativity there are a lot of experimental approaches to getting ideas across in the simplest way possible. People from other countries have had effects on this (from my American perspective) at the margins, but more and more I see foreign flavor seeping into what I experience online. I feel a symbolic collapse coming and a lot of bullshit straining.

    @ Sercee 2
    Those are both my experience as well. Science is a highly stereotyped way of knowing that is basically recorded personal experience that can be confirmed or refuted by others. Those two are a summation of someones personal experience and social messages that they let sink in really deep. Very few people in my experience actually want to find out how to know if what they believe is true. In fact they will fight you if you try to show them.

  5. 5

    My only real-life experience with “ways of knowing” was in college biology classes at a state school with many students from conservative, fundamentalist religious areas, where professors of classes heavy on evolution basically used it as a nicer way of saying “you have to learn this stuff whether you like it or not so please don’t bring your creationist bs into this class and take time away from you and all your classmates learning what needs to be learned in the course.” Basically, even though it was euphemistic bs, it was a nice way for professors to keep rabid creationists from disrupting their classes without dissing them/their beliefs.

  6. 6

    I’ve been trying to write a blog post on this subject for years. I think there is some value to the term/concept “ways of knowing” (or at least “ways of understanding”) in a limited context. Besides science, the “way of knowing” I’m most familiar with is the literary way, where knowledge is attained not through hypothesis-testing and repeated experiments, but by considering aspects of a work in a broader context of when the work was written, or other works you’ve read, or your own personal experience, by reading into things to uncover deeper meanings, themes, symbolism, foreshadowing, and whatnot.

    As an approach to books, it can be very valuable, though it leads to divergent, personal kinds of knowledge (what does the story mean to you and such) rather than the convergent, objective kinds that science acquires. But it’s still a set of methods that one would use to acquire knowledge (or at least understanding) within that particular field. I suspect other fields have other processes that might also differ (math, for instance).

    Why I think this might be useful is that it can help to understand ways in which thinking goes wrong. The thing that kicked off my attempt to write that post was the Double Rainbow video, and in particular, where the guy says “what does it mean?” The video was funny for the guy’s over-the-top reaction and the significance he assigned to a natural event. It’s easy to realize that the rainbow doesn’t “mean” anything; it’s just a trick of light and refraction.

    But if the guy were reading a book or watching a movie or taking in a theatrical production, and there was a lovingly-depicted double rainbow all the way across the sky, “what does it mean” would be a perfectly apt question. I’ve slipped into that kind of thinking before too, interpreting random events as signs or omens or portents–as foreshadowing. If the protagonist stubs his toe and knocks over the glass on the nightstand as he gets out of bed, it’s probably an indication that he’s not going to have a very good day. For real-world people, it’s more likely that they’re just klutzy in the morning.

    Humans are narrative-loving creatures, and we have a whole set of heuristics that we use to analyze and find meaning in literature and other narratives. Problems arise when we try to apply those heuristics in inappropriate circumstances, like the real world. Just as we’d have a good deal of trouble getting anything out of literature if we applied scientific heuristics to trying to understand foreshadowing and theme in a novel.

  7. 7

    I have a different experience with “ways of knowing.” I agree that it is often used in all of the ways described above, but I also see it come up in anthropological contexts. Often scientistic people will dismiss other ways knowing about, say, environments and ecologies. For example, since some group of indigenous people have different ways of explaining and understanding the environment in which they live, they therefore don’t know anything at all. They have different ontologies by which they group things together that sometimes make no sense to us. Yet, if you actually talk to the people and try to learn from their perspective, you find they have very detailed knowledge about their environment that, despite often being couched in unscientific or non-scientific language like myths, is nonetheless quite reliable.

    So, when I see “different ways of knowing” I often think of alternative epistemologies such as Traditional Ecological Knowledge. I wish there was a different way of expressing this aspect of epistemology without invoking the more common baggage now associated with the phrase. =/

  8. 8

    I think the people who use the phrase “ways of knowing” are generally engaged in fudging epistemology and promoting their claims to truth to equivalence with scientific and mathematical knowledge. Some regard their moral convictions to be “objectively true”. Thomas Nagel claims that our reason gives us transcendent direct access to objective reality (which Brad DeLong thought somewhat ridiculous. I seem to recall that Marxists once tended to assert that propositions could be “objectively” true or false.

    My strong preference is to be clear on the separate but dependable epistemologies of facts, which can be definite and observer-independent but are always perishable if not recorded; science, which is provisional, grounded on facts, and durable; and mathematics, which is definite, independent of fact and durable. Any other claims to truth are to be regarded with an agnostic and jaundiced eye.

    The point is that there isn’t really anything in common between the cherry turnover I had for breakfast, the fact that objects near earth accelerate towards it at 9.8 m/s/s, and that a circle’s circumference is tau times its radius, except that they’re less likely to be disputed than nearly any moral or political question.

  9. 9

    @Will, #8:

    Agreed, but perhaps a better general term for what you’re describing is “ways of understanding,” “ways of construing,” or maybe “ways of explaining,” none of which excludes actual “knowledge” based on observation. I think it’s worth making the distinction because unless we reserve the word “knowledge” for “things we have good reason to regard as ‘true’ based on empirical evidence,” it kind of loses its meaning—and like you suggest, we do a major disservice to people of “other cultures” if we dismiss their “knowledge” outright just because it’s cloaked in religious nonsense. We’d do well to remember that the vast majority of scientists in the West have likewise historically been believers in religious nonsense, and that their beliefs haven’t completely prevented them from making legitimate observations about the world around them.

    Even though we can never “know” anything 100%, there are degrees of certainty, and it’s imperative that we distinguish between superstitious beliefs (supported by essentially zero evidence), “knowledge” (where certainty is pretty high thanks to a plethora of empirical data), and the stuff that falls somewhere more centrally on the spectrum (not to mention the stuff that doesn’t fall on the spectrum at all). Word choice matters. I’ve encountered several religious (and, to be fair, some non-religious) academics—typically but not always enamored with postmodernism—co-opting the (rightly) culturally sensitive lexicon of the social sciences for epistemological and metaphysical discussions. They are skeptical of science because, they say, there are (or might be) other “ways of knowing” and other “kinds of truth” that transcend the merely materialistic worldview of science.

    They often have a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method and how science progresses. They straw-man science as being in the business of making claims of 100% certainty, when in fact science is in the business of rigorously testing claims and collecting evidence to constantly reassess levels of certainty. We must grant them that many individual scientists are bad scientists, but we should not give them the opportunity to abstract words like “knowledge” and “truth” to the point that they can use them as cover for their superstitious and/or anti-science views (though I’m afraid it’s too late).

  10. 10

    It’s wildly problematic to allow science to corner the market on epistemology. Empiricism is only one kind of epistemology (Tom Foss addressed this well above in comment #6). As such, I’m not comfortable with the proposition that all knowledge must be empirically based. In fact, it’s a self-contradictory position because you cannot arrive at that knowledge based on empiricism (it looks more like idealism to me).

    I’m not really sure how “ways of knowing” and “ways of understanding” are different here. It seems to me that understanding and explaining are forms of knowledge, no?

  11. 11

    I’ve seen the phrase thrown around in internet debates many times. Usually, what the religious mean by ‘ways of knowing’ can be translated as ‘ways of wanting things to be’.

  12. 12

    A lot of this obviously comes down to definitions of terms. Your points are well taken, Will, and I do think that there is more to consider than just empiricism, but certainly whatever terminology one chooses for concepts like knowledge and belief, careless use of that terminology—of which I am probably guilty in my above post; you’re obviously better versed in epistemological philosophy than I—opens the door for abuse and misapplication of that terminology. And I’ve heard many intelligent religious people throw around the “other ways of knowing” stuff as an apologetics technique.

    In my previous post, I offered more than one alternative to “ways of knowing” to avoid potential confusion, but looking back I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining what I meant (you know, since I didn’t explain it at all). By “ways of understanding,” I mean ways of making sense of things, which ways may or may not be justified based on the evidence. So for example, the belief that God created the Universe in 6 days might qualify as a “way of understanding/explaining” existence, but since there’s no evidential basis for that belief, I would suggest that it would be an abuse of terminology to call this a “way of knowing.”

    My terminology is probably seriously flawed, but my point is that I think it’s important to distinguish between such concepts.

  13. 14

    There is precisely one way of knowing something for certain; and that is to verify it by observation and experiment, refining your hypothesis as it becomes successively closer to observation.

  14. 15

    @Giliell – #3 – You just articulated something it is VERY hard for me to do. I have two kids and I know when something is up. And it’s hard as hell to articulate WHY i think something is up.

    It mostly has to do with unconscious observation – and consciously verbally failing at explaining to a doctor.

    The only fuzzy area I still am puzzled by in ‘ways of knowing’ is….what the heck is that ‘feeling’ that is the difference between a room that has been empty a while, and one that someone has certainly left recently (though unobserved by me). It’s always something I’ve been right about, but damned if I know why. NO, I can’t articulate it better than that – any effort on my part would be coffee out the nose on your part. Anyone else get that feeling?
    (if it helps, my drug of choice is coffee.)


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