Is it possible to justify a hierarchy of different Ways of Knowing and, if so, on what basis?
Ways of knowing are so innate within us that it is difficult to assess them and work out which ones we think have hierarchy over the others. The first way of knowing I chose was language. Language is all around us and acts as the most efficient utensil for communication and therefore the distribution of knowledge. Then there are emotions, which allow us to display how we feel to one another, such as rash decisions like punching a wall in anger or conscious decisions such as smiling at the person sitting next to you. There is also reason which functions as a way of knowing through logic. Finally, there is sense perception. This is the way in which we perceive our world using our five senses. I believe that the hierarchy of the ways of knowing varies according to the areas of knowledge and during this essay I will try to demonstrate this using examples and a range of arguments.
Language is defined as a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation.1 It is mass communication which functions as our dominant form of symbolism. It is easy to forget language as a way of knowing as the learning of our mother tongue seems completely inherent and as it is something that we speak freely, almost without thinking. We take for granted that the simple movements we make with our mouth can convey an infinite amount of knowledge. Some western linguists including Noam Chomsky argue that language in an innate human faculty, a product of a ‘language organ’ in the mind.2 Linguistic innatism is about how much of human nature is wired into the brain. Do babies have an innate knowledge of language or do they learn it through education? Language is always changing and adapting to us and we with it. For example, language can express emotion through the use of swear words. These words usually express anger. However, some people believe that language limits our expression of emotion. This is because we can’t see emotions so they are very difficult to describe without using incredibly ambiguous words. Language has another disadvantage which is that it can often be really misleading. Why do some languages such as French and German use gender with nouns? The fact that they do this leads to the questioning of whether feminine nouns pertain to some kind of female characteristic. If they do then why do other languages have no genders? In Finnish ‘han’ can be used to mean gender neutral. Many words in the English language have varied associations. Take the word silver. To some people they may immediately think of the lustrous grey colour while others may think of the metal which is used to make jewellery. These imperfections in language can be manipulated. As shown in many ambivalent newspaper headlines such as ‘defendant’s speech ends in long sentence’. This can be understood in two ways – either the speech literally ended in a long sentence – as in string of words ended with a full stop or the defendant’s speech resulted in a long prison sentence. In recounts of history including the Vietnam War (1955-1975) alternative words or phrases are found to cover real meanings. An example of this includes when newspapers say ‘neutralised’ and they really meant killed or ‘collateral damage’ to mean killing of civilians. This also relates to the area of knowledge – Ethics and how language can be manipulated in ethics to make something seem right or wrong.
Another fault of language derives from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that ‘no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality’. This hypothesis explains the impracticality of a world with one language and that with that we would lose a lot of culture and tradition. There are certain words in other languages which we don’t have a word for in English such as Schadenfreude, a German word, which would roughly translate to laughing at someone else’s expense. With culture and language come connotations. There are even connotations with names. Some people think that names pertain to a person’s character and it can also instil a sense of authority – nowadays a person has more authority if they have CEO/D.Phil/MD in front of their name.
We use our emotions every day. The simple action of deciding whether we like or dislike something requires use of our emotions. Emotions are useful for making future decisions as we cannot reflect on previous ones remembering our emotions at the time. However, it is hard to accomplish pure objective meaning with the help of hindsight. It may be part of our subconscious mind for example lucid dreams where you can control what is happening but it is still a dream. Antonio Damasio suggested the somatic hypothesis which states that we feel about a positive or negative bodily feeling prior to making a decision. An example of this could be if I was asked a multiple choice question and answered A confidently then I would feel a positive bodily feeling inside. Damasio further states that it is through ‘secondary emotions’ we gain these feelings and that these secondary emotions are enhanced by education and socialization. There are also further effects society has on emotion. One is that society creates emotional constraints such as being depressed or overly happy is seen as a mental illness and there are drugs to combat this ‘illness’. I think this results in the suppression of emotion by society and instead encourages social conformity. However sometimes people rationalise emotion. This could range from saying that pinching your brother can be justified because he was annoying you, and that if you pinched him he would stop annoying you, to someone justifying a murder of a teacher who gave them a bad grade. This shows that emotions do have to be supressed to a certain extent. The question is how far?
Emotion as a way of knowledge is definitely more useful in some areas of knowledge than others. It is less reliable in history as emotion encourages bias and causes the reader to be intentionally or unintentionally subjective, which may decrease the value of a historical source. However even bias can be useful as it can give insight into the psychology of the author at the time and thus enrich our understanding of the society at that time. In the natural sciences and maths, emotion can’t be applied as these areas of knowledge are based on logic but emotion can be expressed through awe, for example when Einstein shouted Eureka in his bath tub. Emotion is useful in both ethics and art. Ethics is all about deciding the difference between what is right and wrong and this requires a personal angle which may be justified by experience and people’s feelings towards certain things. Take animal testing for example. I don’t have a pet so my beliefs about animal testing are likely to be differing from someone who has owned a pet for 10 years. In art an emotional response is required for interpretation. ‘How does that make you feel?’ is a question commonly asked by art teachers. Overall, emotion is a vital way of knowing that we have all become accustomed to using. Without emotions, people wouldn’t be able to prioritise memories or information furthermore complicating the world in which we live in. It is the mix of our consciousness and emotion that allows us to assess and select things. Emotion is the way our brains connect with the world and the knowledge in it.
Reason is the logical process of thought we use by evaluating and altering our ideas. There are two main types of reasoning: inductive and deductive. Inductive reasoning includes a conclusion from more than observations and information; it also usually contains some generalisation. An example of this would be when a young child is learning their colours. Firstly, they learn the colour blue and when you show them a colour similar to this they assume that it is also blue. This is their inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is truth only dependent on method. Reason takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and many people believe it is more realistic than feeling something or dreaming about something. Reason does have a few disadvantages. Some people believe that it is rule-governed like language. This means that there are constraints on reason and Bertrand Russell’s laws of thought support this, which includes the laws of identity, contradiction and the excluded middle, and these laws serve as logical axioms for reasoning. Reasoning also assumes that the world is perfectly logical and that everything will or can be worked out. Whereas the reality is that you can only apply reason to some facets of life. For example in trying to solve housing shortages it would be difficult to do this just using reason, as it would tell you that because these people haven’t got homes you should create some for them which would realistically have a knock-on effect elsewhere in society. Reasoning can also be derived from a bad piece of evidence, this is called a logical fallacy. An example of a fallacy would be a loaded question such as asking someone ‘Do you always eat this much?’ However some people believe logical fallacies are useful when promoting something that would help society, such as stopping smoking or eating five fruits and vegetables a day. Reason is helpful as a way of knowing as it allows us to search for ourselves and explain the world in short simple steps. It aids our natural inquisitiveness and from it we can make appropriate decisions. Nietzsche made the claim that humans invented God not through reason but through the longing for an omnipotent figure that would explain our existence. Reason is a central part of most if not all the areas of knowledge. However I think it is used more in the observational experimental-based areas of knowledge such as the natural sciences and maths.
Our five senses are sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. Sense perception is how our five senses respond to various stimuli; this could be a movement or a change in colour. Most of the time we can’t take everything in, as there is too much to absorb resulting in us subconsciously blanking things out. Perception and selection is an example of how we can be misled by sense perception. The Gestalt theory of psychology tells us that we tend to observe objects partially based on previous experiences. We find patterns or groups within what we see and this can sometimes lead us to seeing what is not actually there.
Sense perception is useful in all the areas of knowledge as it is usually entwined with the other ways of knowing. However it differs sometimes as what we expect to see can effect what we really see. This relates to the experiment done at Cambridge University into how words look the same if you keep the last letter and first letter in the same place. An example of this could be that, you might not spot an error in an essay you wrote because you assume that it is spelt correctly. Perception is also influenced by culture. This symbol to some people would just be a star, to Jewish people it is their emblem and probably a reminder of the tribulations the Jews faced during the Holocaust and to others a combination of the phallic and feminine symbols.
In conclusion, during this essay I have aimed to explain why I think that there is no hierarchy for the ways of knowing but instead a hierarchy according to the areas of knowledge and the type of knowledge you want to receive. Knowledge by acquaintance is tacit knowing from a familiarity or a feeling that is difficult to express. I think that when you are trying to find this knowledge it is better to use emotion and sense perception as they are difficult to express and are limited by the constraints of language and reason. On the other hand, knowledge by description is explicit knowledge usually expressed as facts and figures. To find this knowledge it is therefore easier to use language and reason as they are more logical. However I do think that currently emotion is seen as less useful than language and reason. It is also an empirical age where sense perception is favoured and perhaps this is why people are turning away from religion.
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