So, after a week of thoughtful contemplation amid myriad deadlines, I’m excited to finally post my discussion “On the Nature of Knowledge.” I contested two methods of approach in presenting this topic: one that is grounded in philosophy, and the other that is inspired from my personal experience as a student. Ultimately, I’ve decided to stick with the latter as it would be consistent with how I’ve addressed most of the topics posted on this blog. For anyone wishing to tackle the same topic from a philosophical perspective, check out epistemology (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an awesome introduction on the subject).
Our discussion will be divided into three separate parts dealing with the following questions:
(1) What is knowledge?
(2) What is knowledge from a student’s perspective?
(3) What is the purpose of knowledge?
My objective today will be to share my personal experience and growth over the last seven years of my undergraduate and graduate studies, during which I actively and repeatedly engaged these questions. I’m well aware of the various generalizations that can be made in answering these questions, but my opinions will converge and revolve around the viewpoints I’ve accepted in my personal journey to discover those same answers as a student. Let’s begin!
What is knowledge?
I believe knowledge can be defined via three categories: personal, factual, and action-based knowledge.
Personal knowledge revolves about the knowledge gained by acquaintance with the objects, the events, and the people in one’s environment. Having just arrived in Canada for my undergraduate studies, the foundation of my life was built around the expectations and experiences I had with my family living in India, Egypt, and Sudan. Commencing my studies at the University of Alberta while living in student residence, working part-time and volunteering in various activities, my personal growth as an individual continued as I mingled and became familiar with an alien environment. My new-found freedom allowed me to fully experience and question my individuality, a process that would culminate in my identity crisis several years down the road (one that I have thankfully resolved). Knowledge, in this sense, is acquainted with my familiarity toward objects in my environment as well as the delegation of my recognition to said objects, and was highly influential in defining my identity and my decisions. Altogether, personal knowledge is very much a book in progress in our individual lives. Its measures and ends are dictated by our environments, personal motivations, and growth while actively influencing all three of those aspects.
Action-based knowledge is the knowledge of how to do something. This would involve one’s abilities to do something, like driving a car or starting a campfire.
On the other hand, factual knowledge, as is obvious, is the knowledge of facts. Action-based knowledge is different from factual knowledge. One may know the theory behind driving a car, while not actually knowing how to drive a car. Factual knowledge is evident in both action-based, and personal knowledge. With personal knowledge, in order to speak with others, one must know how to communicate. One doesn’t necessarily know a person just by meeting them, one must also know a few things about them. Similarly, with action-based knowledge, one must know certain facts about driving, like the motion of the car with respect to actions on the steering wheel, to assist and help them actually drive the car.
Despite this, factual knowledge is alone not enough. Personal knowledge involves the need for action-based knowledge that helps an individual acquire the necessary skills to interact with his/her environment, and action-based knowledge may require some factual knowledge, but that same factual knowledge cannot amount towards action-based knowledge. In fact, one could say that there is no definitive standard of connection between these three categories of knowledge, seeing how much they intermesh. For the philosophy lovers, epistemology deals largely with the views of factual knowledge.
What is knowledge from a student’s perspective?
How does this all come together for a student? Well, one of the main reasons we go to school is to cultivate our knowledge and understanding of the world. At university, this may largely be oriented by our aspirations on a field that would preferably model our future careers. I say “may” as I believe the purpose of higher studies does not have to primarily revolve about one’s career or prospective choice of employment (this in itself, leads to the crucial discussion on the structures of education or educational systems).
As a student, much of our time at university involves absorbing the factual knowledge before actually implementing them in the real world. Our action-based knowledge is attested to our success with such implementations. It is pretty similar to the notion of the scientific method, where theory precedes experiment in a repetitive cycle. This is where we also learn the difference between the static process of remembering knowledge versus the dynamic process of applying said knowledge. This is at the core of our ability to learn and interact with our environment, and is a social behavior whose roots are sown in our evolution as a species.
Factoring on to this is the personal knowledge that every individual inhibits. Being a student, you’re part of a community, one that we may or may not socialize with (each with its own share of circumstances). Putting aside the knowledge we gain from our courses, the personal knowledge we exhibit provides for the competitive play of our social lives from networking, to the establishment of our status, while satiating our thirst and drive for recognition.
All of which now leads us to ask, what is the purpose of knowledge in general?
What is the purpose of knowledge?
Personally, to this day, I believe an individual’s knowledge is characterized not only by their ideas, but also how they act upon them. The question on the purpose of knowledge derives greatly from the means of education an individual may seek, which by itself, is an even bigger discussion.
I’ve come to recognize how influential the methods utilized to propagate knowledge at an academic institution can be on its community (teachers and students alike). After my four years of undergraduate studies, I was spent, and in many ways had to rediscover my personal creativity and motivation. Following a gap year, I pursued graduate studies, which I just recently completed. Looking back at my experience, I must say that a large part of my journey also had its run of the mill circumstances surrounding my identity crisis, but I cannot deny that it came with its share of new and enlightening perspectives involving my personal opinions on the educational systems of modern-day academic institutions.
What is the purpose of knowledge? I believe it is what it is, for every one of us, however we wish to see it.
If there is one attribute to my personality that I have always been proud of, it would be my undying curiosity, and endless thirst for knowledge. In my life, this has changed from a wish to understand the world, to sharing said knowledge, and to contributing my own by enhancing the source of said knowledge. The Pensive Reverie is in fact a personification of my desire to share my knowledge, as an individual, to the world. Ultimately, as Francis Bacon put it, “Knowledge is power” but I also believe what we do with said power defines the object for each and every individual.