Who’s Afraid of Epistemology? Exploring Ways of Knowing for Better Learning, Teaching, and Long-term Flourishing

“Epistemology is not a disease.” –Ellis Potter 

 “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” –T.S. Eliot

As an educator and a citizen, I’m increasingly noticing and wrestling with issues about reliable knowledge for complex problems. Watching the 2014 documentary Poverty, Inc., I was further encouraged to move forward with my plans for exploring and writing about epistemology for better teaching and learning. Epistemology is “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope.” That can sound esoteric, but epistemology has all sorts of practical implications for personal, professional, and public life.  

Poverty, Inc. documents and discusses the ways that well-meaning attempts at aiding others ends up doing more harm than good. It’s a messy issue that requires more thought and research. Such messiness is not an invitation to isolationism, but it is a call to think more about how to explore knowledge so that the help we give others is helpful help. 

Similar knowledge issues relate to other important topics for our time such as COVID-19, social justice, environmental concerns, politics, real versus fake news, and best practices for education. At first glance, one might think that discerning real knowledge is common sense and just requires some Google searching, but what does one do when different versions of common sense contradict each other while each seems well-informed and otherwise credible? Likewise, we can ask experts, but what if the experts contradict each other–and themselves over time? Sometimes, individually exploring knowledge is not only ineffective but dangerous, as is evident in the case of a tragic attempt at devising a DIY remedy for the Coronavirus. 

Maybe if one can get a strong formulaic definition to work from that would help. Perhaps something like a foundational definition of “knowledge as justified, true belief.” It doesn’t take too much thinking, reading, and discussing before one finds that what is “justified” and what is “true” are both open to an overwhelming array of multiple and contradictory interpretations, qualifications, and applications.  Messy concepts such as confirmation biases, fallacies, and Gettier problems emerge from even a brief perusal of epistemology and theory of knowing introductions. 

As a side note, one area of weirdness concerning theories of knowledge involves conspiracy theories, which I often find quite entertaining. Perhaps we’re hardwired for these sorts of explanations (or we just like the entertaining buzz we get from these explanations in the place of the hard work of thinking and study). Shannon Odell explains this attraction from the perspective of a neuroscientist. (She’s a neuroscientist, so she must be right, or is this just another plot by the elites to distract us from the truth?!) 

A Neuroscientist Explains What Conspiracy Theories Do To Your Brain | Inverse

Some Challenges to Knowing Well

As I’m doing this introduction to what I’ll call “Ways of Knowing,” I’m thinking about various challenges and mindsets that might get in the way of knowing and knowing more about knowing (a list which is often as much about me as about others): 

  • Busyness
  • Distraction
  • Lack of self-discipline 
  • Intimidation 
  • Competing senses of authority, anti-authority attitudes, or distrust of authorities 
  • Suspicion about questionable motivations and methods behind the claims of knowledge
  • Information overload
  • Anti-intellectualism  

Rough Drafting “Ways of Knowing for Better Teaching and Learning” 

I’m not the first educator to question the practice of having pre-service teachers write their philosophy of education, and I’ll probably not be the last. Actually, instead of personal philosophy papers, all teachers need some knowledge-rich introductions and resources for putting the main branches of philosophy to work in their classrooms and in their lives. Our students need that too. So that’s what I’ll work on in the weeks to come in terms of epistemology. I’ve appreciated the focus on theory of knowledge found in International Baccalaureate® (IB) curriculums from my previous experiences and training, but what I work on here will be a bit different. 

In thinking about knowledge for a while, I’ve been especially helped by variations on what might be thought of as perspectival or dimensional thinking. Plato’s ancient “Allegory of the Cave” (explained here and here) might serve as a good story-form introduction to one way of looking at knowledge perspectivally. In a metaphorical sense, knowledge-building is a journey for those willing to venture into it. Speaking of which, if you enjoy Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” you should take some time to read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, which borrows from Plato’s approach and thoroughly satirizes Abbott’s late-Victorian culture in ways that point to some key concerns about long-term flourishing that relate well to our age too.

Additionally, I’m likely influenced by Christian philosopher John Frame’s theological approach to triperspectivalism with his three angles of knowing that he uses to explore how normative, situational, and existential perspectives all can interconnect as one works through issues of knowledge, ethics, and perspective. Without requiring that we work on theology or even theological assumptions, I think Frame’s perspectival approach could be modified to address six angles on knowing that correspond to six different tendencies for people. The shape of the polygon is in no way proportional to the intensity or frequency of different ways of knowing (or epistemologies or theories of knowledge), but I think that this could be a helpful construct map. Here then are six basic perspectives for ways of knowing: 

  • Rational 
  • Empirical
  • Intuitive 
  • Personal 
  • Pragmatic 
  • Suspicious   

Here’s what I have in mind as a hexagonal-perspectival way of visualizing these ways of knowing and their interconnected relationships:

Six Perspectives on Knowing

Chances are good that each of these perspectives will take more than one post to explore, explain, and apply to some important teaching and learning connections. Additionally, I want to look at these in a perspectival manner. So what does that mean? 

Each of the six ways of knowing can be helpful for working through knowledge problems, and each of the six ways has limitations. We can best put these to work by exploring their individual qualities, and then we can add value and insight to knowledge building by thinking about how they can work together, and how they can be in tension. 

Next time, we will explore important ways that rationalism relates to ways of knowing, ranging from ancient philosophers to modern variations.

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. What knowledge problems do you care about most?
  2. What problems of knowledge frustrate you? 
  3. Where do you go for reliable knowledge? When do you think it is best to trust experts? When do you think we need to trust ourselves for discovering knowledge?  
  4. What knowledge do you wish that others had in order to help us have a better society? 

For Further Study and Reflection: 

Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, by Jennifer Nagel 

Theory of Knowledge: Introduction to Theory of Knowledge,” on Khan Academy by Jennifer Nagel 

The Meaning of Knowledge: Crash Course Philosophy #7,” by Hank Green 

Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Timothy Williamson

The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols 

The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen

How Do You Know That?, by Ellis Potter (Potter is doing Christian apologetics but perhaps beneficial for all as an informal, charitable, and thoughtful discussion of epistemology and faith.)

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter

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