Four words of ancient Greek are important to the first philosophical discussions of knowledge in the Western tradition. In a given context any of them might be translated with the word "knowledge": epistēmē, technē, mētis, and gnōsis.
Epistēmē names the most philosophical idea of knowledge: contemplative, disinterested, logical knowledge of truth and reality. Such knowledge is not merely true; it is self-certifying, indubitable, a rock-solid foundation on which to build scientific understanding. That was important. Philosophical thinking begins with the idea that belief or opinion (doxa ) is not knowledge even if it happens to be true. Doxa is changeable, especially in a city, where people may be swayed by sophists and demagogues. Through its root (histēmi, "to stand firm, to set up"), epistēmē evokes ideas of firmness and stability. That is what the philosophers sought in the best and highest knowledge: an immovable point no persuasive speech can overturn.
Stoic philosophers defined epistēmē- knowledge as "apprehension (katalepsis ) that is safe and unchangeable by argument," according to the Florilegium (extracts from Greek authors compiled by Joannes Stobaeus in the late fifth century). About two generations earlier, Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 b.c.e.) had put forward his highly influential vision of philosophical progress from doxa, the opinions of the crowd, to the correct opinion (orthodoxos ) of specialists, and finally the summit, epistēmē, the best and highest knowledge. In the Theaetetus, what sets epistēmē apart from true opinion is called an aitias logismos, a reasoned account, explaining why the knowledge is and must be true. In the Republic, however, what sets epistēmē- knowledge apart from doxa is the object that it apprehends—a Form or Idea. Opinion cannot turn into knowledge because the "objects" of opinion are ultimately incoherent particulars for which no reasoned account is possible. Plato also explains how the Form of the Good is the cause of things being knowable at all. It is not the presence of a Form as such that makes epistēmē- knowledge possible; rather, it is the Form's place in the cosmic system. Form becomes logical and Ideas intelligible only when grasped in the light of the whole (the Good).
The philosophers did not invariably construe epistēmē as disinterested. The ordinary sense of the word is simply to have a good understanding of a thing, anything, archery, for instance. Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) divided epistēmē into three parts: theoretical (science and philosophy), practical (ethics, economics, politics), and productive, an epistēmē he called technē. Technē (from which technology, technique, and so on) refers to the knowledge of a recognized expert, like a physician, musician, or carpenter. Such knowledge is skillful, artful, reliable, specialized, and usually organized in professional associations. Plato explored the comparison of epistēmē and technē, using the words interchangeably in some dialogues. Could the best and highest knowing be some kind of art? One difficulty is that technē- knowledge aims at something concrete—a ship, a healthy human, a drama. The objects of philosophical epistēmē, however, are not these mundane artifacts, but the eternal Forms in which particulars merely participate. A further difficulty is that technē- knowledge can be used for good or ill alike. Such knowledge is instrumental, serving other ends, and the effectiveness of technique is no guarantee that the ends are good, whereas epistēmē is knowing in the light of the Good itself. This intrinsic value for knowledge of truth became traditional in Western thought, seldom questioned until Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) at the end of the nineteenth century.
Mētis is cunning, clever, effective knowledge, as exemplified by the mythical figures of Odysseus and Daedalus. This knowledge combines flair and wisdom, subtlety and deception, resourcefulness and mastery of many skills. Far from disinterested or contemplative, it proves its value most concretely, especially in situations that are shifting or ambiguous, where art outweighs the force of violence. The philosophers either pass over the qualities of mētis- knowledge or mention them with hostile irony. Plato (in Gorgias and Philebus ) condemns the in-exactitude, oblique procedures, cunning, and guesswork. Everything about mētis- knowledge confirms its limitation to the shadow theater Plato famously depicted our life as being. The philosopher seeks to penetrate those shadows to an immortal knowledge of the changeless Source of change.
Gnōsis usually has the sense of an intelligent grasp of a thing or situation. In the common account of Heracleitus (c. 540–c. 480 b.c.e.), Parmenides (515 b.c.e.), and Plato, only one who fully knows (gignōskein ) can be sure to have grasped a thing as it veritably is. All that is required to transform this gnosis into the lauded philosophical epistēmē is the rational account by which we understand things in the light of the Good and the Whole. The so-called Gnostics were heretical sects of the early common era. They conceived of knowing as an immersion into the divine energy, to be possessed and transformed by it. The gnōsis sought by the Gnostics is an epignōsis, or knowledge of the self, its origin and destiny, a supernatural superknowledge that is supposed to save our lives.
The European Middle Ages divide into two parts, before and after about 1200. The thought of the first period is broadly Platonic, a legacy of St. Augustine (354–430). Later medieval thought benefited from the recovery of the works of Aristotle and the Islamic commentators. Augustine's outlook is notably Plato's: the senses depreciated in favor of immutable truths directly intuited, and a grudging admission of practical knowledge (technē ) as a lower use of reason directed not toward wisdom but practical necessity. Human knowledge is possible because God illumines our minds, showing us the divine ideas, the archetypes of phenomena.
The most original, if not influential, medieval philosopher of knowledge is Rogen Bacon (c. 1214–c. 1292). Interested in problems that would occupy Galileo three hundred years later (especially falling bodies and optics), he anticipated the Italian astronomer's conviction that the solutions to these and other scientific problems lies in mathematics: "He who is ignorant of mathematics cannot know the other sciences nor the affairs of the world" (Opus majus 4.1). Even more against the scholastic grain was his enthusiasm for experiments: "He who wishes to rejoice without doubt in regard to the truths underlying phenomena must know how to devote himself to experiment" (Opus majus 4.1).
By a.d. 600 each inhabitable island of the south and central Pacific had been discovered and settled.… Magellan [1480–1521] traversed the whole Pacific from the tip of South America; he never sighted any land until he reached the Marianas, just east of the Philippines. Not only had Pacific islanders discovered and settled all the suitable islands of the Pacific, but there is solid linguistic, ethnobotanical, and archaeological evidence that they made two-way voyages among them. They sailed, for example, between Tahiti and Hawaii and back again, a distance over three thousand miles of open sea. All this was done by stone age people without writing, charts, or navigational instruments of any kind. In spite of a long series of fanciful theories of lost continents, primitive navigational instincts, and accidental drift voyages, we now know the secret of what made Pacific Island voyaging possible. The secret was knowledge. The navigational abilities of Pacific Islanders depended on a profound general knowledge of the sea, the sky and the wind; on a superb understanding of the principles of boat-building and sailing; and on cognitive devices—all in the head—for recording and processing vast quantities of ever changing information.
source: C. O. Frake, "Dials: A Study in the Physical Representation of Cognitive Systems." In The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology, edited by Colin Renfrew and E. B. W. Zubrow, pp. 123–124. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. (Emphasis added).
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) dominates the later period. He was the greatest of medieval Aristoteleans. Aristotle had argued that the object of the epistēmē -knowledge (scientia for Thomas) is immutable and necessary, incapable of being otherwise. Such knowledge is true and certain, being deduced from first principles. A thing is known when we learn its cause, and it is not known without the certainty of deduction from principles, confirming that the thing could not possibly be any other way. As John Buridan (c. 1300–1358) explains, "Science differs from opinion because … opinion does not judge with certainty but with fear and science judges with certainty and without fear" (Questions on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle ). This remains the view of practically all the European philosophers down to René Descartes and John Locke.
The early modern philosophers of the seventeenth century accepted most of ancient thought about knowledge. The clear and distinct ideas that alone count as knowledge for René Descartes (1596–1650) are not notably different from the reasonable account that is Plato's criterion of epistēmē- knowledge. Even supposedly "empirical" philosophers like John Locke (1632–1704) assume that there is a strict and proper sense of knowledge that requires nothing less than rational certainty.
The break with tradition came from outside philosophical epistemology, in the new experimental natural philosophy of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and others. The first attempt to describe the experimental method was by Francis Bacon (1561–1626). The most influential account, however, is in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant famously explains how concepts are empty without a content they acquire from experience, and how sensations are chaotic noise without a priori concepts we bring to the process of understanding. In this account, empirical knowledge is a synthesis, a mental construction, combining what the senses offer with concepts that, in their broadest features, are a priori forms of human understanding.
Conceiving of knowledge as something put together in the service of understanding suggests that the control of experience may be a more important cognitive goal than the fidelity (or "correspondence") of a disinterested representation. This idea was explored in the nineteenth century by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Nietzsche. Further reflection on scientific experiments confirmed a similar view. What we learn from experiments is how to produce highly controlled effects, not how things are "in themselves," apart from the experimental intervention. This idea of knowledge as an external force of control was taken up by the Vienna positivists, including Ernst Mach (1838–1916), and the American Pragmatists—Charles Sanders Peirce (1838–1914), William James (1842–1910), and John Dewey (1859–1952), who reached conclusions not dissimilar to those of Nietzsche.
Twentieth-century thinkers influenced by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Karl Marx (1818–1883) proposed a sociological theory of knowledge. The first premise of these theories is that no knowledge is entirely autonomous in structure or development from the group that produces it. How one looks at data, how one construes given facts, what one takes seriously, depend on social position. Karl Mannheim's seminal Ideologie und Utopie (1929; translated as Ideology and Utopia, 1936) argued that social circumstances determine both what we seek to know and the validity of knowledge attained. Later accounts abandon the idea of validity, rejecting the philosophical distinction between knowledge and doxa, an ideal subject matter for sociology.
For much of the twentieth century, philosophical discussion of knowledge was preoccupied with the problem of skepticism. Originally, skeptikos meant an inquirer, and later came to refer to followers of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–c. 272 b.c.e.). Their school flourished in the classical world between 100 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. These Skeptics taught the radical suspension of judgment, liberating the self of dogmatic convictions (and all convictions are dogmatic), as the way to mental tranquility (ataraxia ). The point of skeptical arguments is to instill doubt about the most obvious matters, to show that belief is futile. Nothing can be proved because anything can be proved. There is no argument so convincing that an equally convincing argument for the opposite cannot be constructed. Mental peace lies in getting over the vanity of knowledge.
Skepticism fell into decline after Roman times. By the Middle Ages the school and its arguments were forgotten. This situation changed abruptly in the latter sixteenth century, when long-lost texts of ancient skepticism were republished. From then on skepticism played a role in early modern thought, especially in the work of Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Descartes, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), and David Hume (1711–1776). Yet Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) both suppose they have overcome skepticism or shown it to involve a mistake, and for most of the nineteenth century skeptical problems were not much discussed in Euro-American philosophy.
In the twentieth century the so-called Analytic philosophers rediscovered skeptical problems as ideal for their methods of precise, rigorous, often logically formalized argumentation. Their problem is to prove the objectivity of knowledge, which usually means refuting the skeptic, who asks how you know that you are not dreaming, or are not a brain in a vat, or that the universe did not come into existence a minute earlier, complete with your faulty memories. The presumption is that unless we can prove that we can prove nothing, and unless something is proved there is no objective knowledge. Over a period of two thousand years, then, skepticism changed from being a way of life, as it was for Pyrrhonians, to a mood and method of self-knowledge in Montaigne and Descartes, to a technical problem for the most formidably technical work since high-Medieval scholasticism.
The Linguistic Turn
The linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy refers to the rising influence of logical positivism (especially the work of Rudolf Carnap [1891–1970]), as well as positivism's discontents (Willard Van Orman Quine [1908–2000]), heretics (Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889–1951]), and satellites (Bertrand Russell [1872–1970], Karl Popper [1902–1994]). The movement began in German-speaking countries in the 1930s but rose to predominance in English-language philosophy after World War II. It mingled with an independently evolved linguistic analysis and so-called ordinary-language philosophy, as in the work of George Edward Moore (1873–1958), J. L. Austin (1911–1960), and Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976). For all these thinkers, everything in philosophy is a matter of language. The problem of knowledge is a problem of semantic analysis: how is the word used? What is the language game, the logic of the concept?
In a widely discussed article, "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" (1963), Edmund Gettier claimed to prove that knowledge is not conceptually equivalent to justified true belief. Gettier's paper shows the style of the then-new analytic approach, using contrived scenarios as logical counterexamples to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. The counterexamples usually work by drawing a reasonable inference from a justified though false belief, inferring something true by accident. Suppose I believe that a neighbor, Jones, owns a Ferrari. I have evidence: it is parked by his house, I see him in it, and so on. Because I believe Jones owns a Ferrari, and because Jones is my neighbor, I infer that a neighbor owns a Ferrari. Jones, however, does not own the car, which is owned by my neighbor on the other side, who, unknown to me, works with Jones. Still, it is true that a neighbor owns a Ferrari, and I believe that truth on good evidence. I have a justified true belief, but do I know that a neighbor owns a Ferrari? To most people it seems wrong to say so, especially since the neighbor I am thinking of is not the neighbor who owns the automobile. Apparently, then, knowledge is not justified true belief.
Gettier's argument spurred an academic industry. The problem was to render the justified-true-belief formula invulnerable to Gettier-type cases, or replace this "classical" definition of knowledge with something equally plausible and immune to counterexample. Nothing memorable came of it. And contrary to what is often said, the definition of knowledge as justified true belief is not in any sense "classical." It has never been widely accepted and first entered philosophical discussion (in Plato's Theaetetus ) as a refuted theory.
Between Gettier-inspired concerns about the analysis of knowledge and the project of refuting the skeptic, epistemologists fell into two broad camps, depending on whether they considered knowledge to require an element of justification or understanding, or whether, contrary to tradition, true belief might be enough. The idea that knowledge requires only true belief, provided the cause of the belief is appropriate or reliable, is known as externalism. Such theories reject the traditional assumption that knowledge requires the knower to understand the reason why a belief is true. They thereby finesse both the Gettier problem and the problem of skepticism. If knowing does not require understanding, then neither must a person who knows be able to refute the skeptic. And if knowledge does require that the cause of belief be reliable, even if the reasons for trust are unknown to the knower, then Gettier-scenario counterexamples fail due to an unreliable source for the (accidentally) true belief.
The heyday of linguistic philosophy had passed by 1980. The movement had led to little in the theory of knowledge. Pure conceptual or semantic analysis was largely abandoned. Exchanging those discredited methods for the richer data of the sciences, Quine called for a "naturalized epistemology." The idea was to reframe the theory of knowledge in terms of empirical hypotheses about the neurological, cognitive, and evolutionary matrix of human knowledge. Quine's project attracted many followers, and Analytic philosophers formed new and often quite deep alignments with scientific research in these areas.
A second trend in post-linguistic-analysis philosophy is a movement of internal critique, a deconstructive diagnosis of epistemology as a pseudoproblem. Wittgenstein inspired this turning of philosophy upon itself, claiming to find conceptual confusion and intellectual neurosis everywhere. The autocritique of epistemology was led by Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Rorty finds the very idea of a "theory of knowledge" premised on an untenable concept of mental representation as a kind of "correspondence" or "isomorphism" with things in themselves.
The word cognition relates to the ways in which people (and other species) draw information from the world, combine and interpret it, and make decisions about the information. Identifying this cognitive, information-processing function with knowledge seemed to open the way to a biological, evolutionary theory of knowledge, as by Konrad Lorenz (1903–1989). Later evolutionary accounts usually make two claims. The first is that human knowledge is an evolved adaptation, an outcome of natural selection. The second is that any adaptation of any species is a kind of knowledge, that evolutionary adaptation is the primary way of knowing the world. In these accounts an insect's camouflage coloration is knowledge of its environment; the fleshy water-conserving cactus stem "knows" that water is locally scarce; the shape of the hummingbird beak expresses knowledge of the structure of the flowers it lives on. Human knowledge is a special case of this primary and ubiquitous biological knowledge of adaptation.
By the latter twentieth century feminism had established a presence in the academy, criticizing and developing theories in several areas of philosophical research, including the theory of knowledge. Most feminists have nothing good to say about what has been done in epistemology. Presuming to speak in a universal voice, philosophical theories of knowledge are gendered and do not know it. Feminists challenge epistemology's concept of knowledge (as objective, transcendent, disinterested) and its conception of the knower (as autonomous, self-interested, isolated). They deepen the discontent of the postpositivist philosophy of science and urge points similar to the sociologists of knowledge. Distinctive is the attention to early experience, emotion, racism, class, and, above all, gender as vectors of knowledge repressed from a sexist epistemology.
For much of the latter twentieth century philosophy in the Western countries was divided into two camps, usually called Analytic and Continental. The division is not a happy one for many reasons, not least because the idea of dividing philosophy this way is an invention of the positivists, foisted upon an otherwise heterogeneous selection of mostly French and German thinkers who often had little in common. Continental research did not pursue the theory of knowledge with anything like the industry of the Analysts. Many agreed with Hegel's assessment that the whole idea of a theory of knowledge (which would presumably itself be knowledge) is naive and superfluous.
Three European thinkers are exceptions to the tendency to dismiss the theory of knowledge. One is German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) and his work Knowledge and Human Interests (1968). By "human interests" Habermas means orientations of thought and action rooted in the fundamental evolutionary conditions of our species, which he reduces to the interests of work, social interaction, and emancipation. He describes three categories of possible knowledge corresponding to these interests: (1) instrumental, technical knowledge, expanding our power of control; (2) knowledge of language or, more broadly, of language games and cultural traditions, which orient people in common action; and (3) critical-social knowledge about political legitimacy and subordination. The conditions of objectivity differ in each case. When we are interested in a device that works, objectivity has one meaning; when interested in a social interaction, for instance a negotiation, objectivity requires different criteria. And when our interest is in emancipation, we require knowledge of the real conditions of social power in a given society. Social-scientific methods should take their objectivity from this emancipatory interest and not imitate the differently funded objectivity of the natural and technological sciences.
Lyotard and Foucault.
Jean-François Lyotard's widely read The Postmodern Condition (1979) was subtitled A Report on Knowledge. Under the conditions of what he calls post-modernity, knowledge has become discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. Getting used to knowledge in such a condition should refine our sensitivity to differences and reinforce our ability to tolerate incommensurables. Another French thinker contributing influential ideas about knowledge is Michel Foucault (1926–1984). The point of his neologism "power/knowledge" is to indicate a reciprocity linking the production and circulation of knowledge with the political economy of government. Power and knowledge flourish together, confirming each other, reproducing each other's authority. Power so entrained with knowledge need not falsify or repress any truth that may be discovered, nor must research sacrifice scientific credibility merely because it owes a debt to coercive social power. To reach these conclusions, however, Foucault had to reduce knowledge to socially prestigious discourse, the arbitrary output of an institutional "discursive apparatus," generating statements its authorities take seriously. There is in this account no more to "knowing" than who gets to say what and say it impressively enough to leave a trace, to have an effect, to make a legible difference in the archive.
Knowledge and Truth
That knowledge must be true is a longstanding presupposition of Western thought. Yet there are many instances of knowledge that cannot be called true. These include knowledge expressed in technological objects like a bridge or satellite, or in works of art and the imagination. A technological artifact or a work of art is not true (or false) in the way a proposition is. In the face of this discontinuity between knowledge and truth, one may question whether truth properly has the value for knowledge philosophers tend to suppose, or one may make subtle distinctions, dividing knowledge so as to preserve the necessary truth of its best and highest instances. Unsurprisingly, philosophers prefer to distinguish and preserve. Where ancient philosophy distinguished a scientific epistēmē from the technē of art and craft, twentieth-century analysts discovered a "semantic" or "conceptual" distinction between knowing how and knowing that.
This distinction is not a neutral analysis. It may be no more than a linguistic rationalization for the assumption that knowledge must divide along lines of intrinsic truth and mere instruments. Western thought consistently ignores, misdescribes, and underappreciates the knowledge involved in art and technology. The philosophers seldom have a good word for artisanal technē- knowledge, or the ingenuity and cunning (mētis ) of the architect or hunter. Although these other knowledges are indispensable to human existence, that very thing has seemed to make them base, materialistic, unsuited to higher minds. To the philosophers, how-to (or technē ) knowledge is routine, mechanical, and thoughtless, while knowledge of truth is a disinterested grasp of nature and reality.
Philosophers even preferred to invent new concepts of truth rather than reconsider whether the best and most important knowledge has to be true. Kant's theory suggested (though not to Kant) that truth may not be a matter of "correspondence" between thought and reality but merely a coherence of experience. The pragmatists took experimental knowledge as exemplary and promptly introduced a new theory of truth, defining it in terms of "working." It would be equally logical, however, to simply drop the condition of truth on the best sort of knowledge.
Certainly there is some difference between knowing that the earth rotates around the sun (a true proposition) and knowing how to play the flute (a skill or art). But is the difference one in kinds of knowledge? What is obviously different about them is how the knowledge is expressed. In one case by producing a proposition, in the other by a musical performance. But that is a difference in the artifacts that express knowledge, and does not prove a difference in what makes these examples of knowledge at all. In both cases the knowledge concerns artifacts, constructions of ours, whether propositions or musical performances. And in both cases these artifacts must rate as notable accomplishments. Not just any true proposition expresses knowledge; it has to be informative, important, an insight or discovery. And not just any playing constitutes knowledge (mastery) of the flute.
Heliocentric astronomy and musical artistry are therefore not so different as knowledge. Whether we speak of knowing that (such and such is true) or knowing how, we are qualifying capacities for performance at a certain high level with artifacts of some kind. As examples of knowledge, a surgical operation or a bridge may serve as well as any scientific truth. Their quality as knowledge depends not on their truth but on other, equally rare qualities of artifactual construction. Knowledge has much less to do with theory and truth than philosophers assume. What makes knowledge desirable and worth cultivating is the enhancement it brings to the effectiveness with which we operate in an artifactual environment. Knowing how and knowing that are not different kinds of knowledge. They are different kinds of use for different artifacts, all expressing the only kind of knowledge there is: a human capacity for superlative artifactual performance.
See also Learning and Memory, Contemporary Views ; Logic ; Mind ; Philosophy .
Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004. Develops account of knowledge as superlative artifactual performance.
——. Truth in Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Discusses ideas of truth in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other Continental philosophers.
Elias, Norbert. Norbert Elias on Civilization, Power, and Knowledge: Selected Writings. Edited and with an introduction by Stephen Mennell and John Goudsblom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Everson, Stephen, ed. Companions to Ancient Thought. Vol. 1, Epistemology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Feenberg, Andrew, and Alastair Hannay, eds. Technology and the Politics of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Harding, Sandra, and Jean F. O'Barr, eds. Sex and Scientific Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Laudan, Rachel, ed. The Nature of Technological Knowledge: Are Models of Scientific Change Significant? Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1984.
Machlup, Fritz. Knowledge: Its Creation, Distribution, and Economic Significance. 3 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980–1984.
Marglin, Frédérique Apffel, and Steven A. Marglin, eds. Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
——. Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, and Resistance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
McCarthy, E. Doyle. Knowledge As Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories / Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. A contribution from post-colonial cultural studies.
Moser, Paul K., ed. Oxford Handbook of Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Renfrew, Colin, and E. B. W. Zubrow, eds. The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Tanesini, Alessandra. An Introduction to Feminist Epistemologies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
Wuketits, Franz M. Evolutionary Epistemology and Its Implications for Humankind. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
"Knowledge." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
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If someone asks, “What is knowledge?” science seems a likely answer. Its impact is enormous, and its method is logical and rigorous, immunized from personal bias, and based on repeatable experiments revealing predictable facts of the universe. But can one live by science alone? One should not overlook the “who-why” question: “Who wants to know, and why?” The twenty-first-century economy seems even more dependent on knowledge than when the extracting and producing industries were dominant and natural science seemed all one needed to know. Now the economy comprises “knowledge workers,” information technology, intellectual property, collaborative networks—to say nothing of laws, customs, culture, and the other aspects of social life—so it is probably even more important to understand what the term knowledge means.
The study of knowledge is epistemology, a type of philosophizing that differs from metaphysics, logic, aesthetics, or ethics. From Plato (427–347 bce) one learns that knowledge is “justified true belief.” When one believes something to be true, the burden of demonstrating it as knowledge rather than mere opinion falls on how it is justified or “warranted.” In René Descartes’s (1596–1650) time, “full justification” was taken to mean that a statement was certain beyond doubt. Knowing that the senses can be deceived, Descartes attacked our knowing with radical doubt. He argued that only our own thinking is unmediated by the senses, so our only certainty is the mind’s certainty of itself. This positioning of reasoning cut through millennia of muddled debate and established knowledge as the antithesis of doubt, rather than the achievement of certainty. But epistemology has struggled ever since with the damage done: a loss of innocence spawning a plurality of epistemologies, each defining doubt and knowledge differently. We shall look at knowledge through this multi-epistemic prism, focusing on doubt and outlining the types of knowledge emerging, and conclude with their integration. Rather than merely list the knowledge types spoken of today (explicit, tacit, social, individual, practical, emotional, etc.), our analysis proposes a framework for their mutual constitution.
Descartes presumed that thinking should be logical; operating correctly, the mind is computer-like. This view sets emotion, also unmediated by the senses, in opposition to cold reason, dismissing emotion from knowing. Second, with both sense-data and emotion dismissed, there can be no knowledge of the world beyond the mind’s computations—for example, of the physical world in which the brain seemingly exists. So what can be known is of no relevance to our world, and what is certain is so because it is tautologous, like a mathematical proof. Given these assumptions, this conclusion is inescapable. Knowledge is also individual, private, within the mind, and detached from the interests, discourses, and activities of our fellows, denying Francis Bacon’s (1561–1626) maxim that “knowledge is power.”
Logicality is powerful justification, but alone it demands too much. Scientific knowledge is a compromise between logic and other warrants that allows knowledge of the world beyond Cartesian tautology without demanding certainty. Instead of entirely removing doubt, science treats doubt as pervasive, a condition to be managed. Reaching beyond the mind, all doubt-managing, as opposed to doubt-rejecting, epistemologies take off from assumptions about what and where we are—thinking, memorizing, observing, experiencing, and so forth—though each person orders these differently. For most people, science is a variation on realism and embraces, for instance, positivism and critical realism. Realisms presume a logical and observable reality “out there,” independent of our observing. All knowledge is of this reality. Sensedata is prioritized over what we think, over opinion. Science aspires to the facts of this reality, though, afflicted by doubt, we know our impressions are conjectures, never certainties.
In contrast to realism, idealist or interpretive epistemologies like phenomenology bring us closer to Descartes, prioritizing the mind over assumptions about reality. They presume we can never know reality’s essence, and this is not our target; indeed our senses may be incapable of capturing it. All we can know is experience and our senses’ impact on our thinking. This becomes ordered as we lay mental maps or meaning systems over our experience, capturing it as knowledge. We make this our knowledge of the world, rather than our imaginings, by using it to predict our experience. We may structure it as causal relationships, but, as David Hume (1711–1776) argued, we impose such causality; we cannot observe it at work. Knowledge as meaning takes us a step back from immediate sense-data about the objects that comprise the world and into generalizations, relations, associations, covering laws, and so forth. Though epistemologically distinct, facts and covering laws are both representations of the world. Facts make the stronger claim, purporting to describe the world as it really is, but covering laws may be more useful, describing relations or forces between the factlike objects comprising the world.
All epistemologies seek justified truth-yielding links between our thinking and the world beyond the mind, which obviously includes our brains and bodies. Each epistemology adopts different strategies to manage the doubt involved. Naive realism, for instance, proposes that the mind is in intimate contact with nature; things are what they seem to be and doubt does not enter. Knowledge is individual. Justified true belief differs, for it moves knowledge beyond the privacy of the mind, presupposing its capture in a shared language whose construction and interpretation is knowing. Scientific knowledge is intersubjective, beyond the individual, and necessarily contextualized to a specific society and located in its discursive spaces and activities—book-learning statements in libraries or at conferences, for instance. Statements can be conjectural, as Albert Einstein’s (1879–1955) were, to be tested later, or they can be empirical, based on past experience of the world. Our hypothesizing and experimentation integrates our thinking and observing, and doubt is managed through science’s intersubjective processes, supported by open discourse, multiple experiments, statistical analysis, and criticism. Disputes about whether or not this process manages doubt adequately comprise the philosophy of science (Curd and Cover 1998). Some argue that experimental confirmations raise confidence in our conjectures. Karl Popper (1902–1994), in contrast, sought falsification, seeing logical asymmetry between verification and rejection. This is an error. Rejection depends on observation theory too, so experimentation merely compares science’s confidence in the theorizing behind the hypothesis and the observation. As neither is free of doubt, the outcome remains logically ambiguous.
The methods of science can generate knowledge of the entities comprising society, as well as of the objects and relationships comprising nature. Thus realist sociology and psychology are warrantable companions to realist physics, chemistry, and biology, but who-why questions loom larger as we move from the natural to the social sciences. In pragmatist epistemologies, the usefulness of knowledge becomes the truth criterion. Representational correctness gives way to utility or “cash value.” Pragmatism is a flavor of realism in that it takes the world’s existence for granted, though this world is social, technological, and political, rather than that of the natural scientist. Jürgen Habermas integrated pragmatism with our presumed common rationality to locate knowledge in the intersubjective discourse of the democratic “ideal speech situation,” where knowledge is consensual and directed toward our interests, such as changing the lived world (Habermas 2003).
Reintroducing peoples’ interests inclines us to think reflexively of ourselves as knowing. Given doubt and a pragmatic point of view, it may be more useful to know why someone acted as they did than to know the facts of the situation they faced. Two things are going on here. First, as an actor’s knowledge is never free of doubt, there is a crucial difference between the facts and the actor’s perception of them. Instead of knowing the causes that move people as objects, we seek the actor’s perceptions and explanation of the situation. But this admits heterogeneity, for we know with all the force of cogito ergo sum, that people and their knowing differ. Second, doubt is transformed into the necessity to choose. Since reality cannot speak to us directly, we choose how to attend to and interpret the world. This choice transforms the relationship between the actor and the actor’s knowledge, for this is now more than a representation to be applied through rational decision making; it is shaped by the actor’s values and intentions, and so by his or her emotions. Doubt and emotion become integral parts of our agency and interest in changing the world. When things are certain, our actions are wholly determined; we have no options, no way of manifesting ourselves in the world. Thus doubt, emotion, variety, and diversity challenge our notions of knowledge as universal.
Science works hard for universality, and, given doubt, agreement across the community of scientists becomes a proxy for objectivity and truth, seemingly limiting the impact of emotion. But the relativism implicit in perception raises subjective doubt, not so much separating the mind from the thing known as separating people, in their knowing, from each other and undercutting the idea of knowledge as intersubjective and shared. Once admitted, intersubjective doubt needs to be managed if we are to escape epistemological anarchy and the conclusion that knowledge is whatever one wishes it to be. The openness of scientific discourse seeks convergence, or at least some form of epistemological democracy. Rejecting naive realism or a “correspondence theory” of knowledge can lead to the universal consensuality of Habermas or, within a discipline, a Kuhnian paradigm that presumes that right-thinking scientists are in broad agreement. This “social constructionist” discourse institutionalizes scientific knowledge or, rather, manages doubt and emotion in institutionalized ways (Gergen 1994). Historical studies like Thomas Kuhn’s (1922–1996), or those of sociologists of knowledge like Karl Mannheim (1893–1947) and Robert K. Merton (1910–2003), suggest that socially constructed knowledge may change sharply and unpredictably, like an ecology, and that the politics and clashing interests of the group may shape both its changes and what the group defines as knowledge. Power penetrates the discourse and process of justification.
Thus far this entry has touched on three principal modes of justification: reality, social agreement, and utility. All such post-Enlightenment epistemologies embrace reason and empiricism and stand against the transcendentalism that preceded them, when, perhaps, holy books or the Delphic oracle were the warrants for knowledge. These epistemologies also presuppose constancy of situation, reflecting the realist’s assumption of nature’s invariance. Will what was useful yesterday be useful tomorrow? Just as we know we differ, so we know situations change. Absent doubt, of course, we would be at that Archimedean fulcrum of equilibrium and truth from where we would understand change as the world’s dynamic, just as we understand a clock in spite of its moving hands. But the phenomenological drift contradicted the idea of knowledge as just about the world “out there,” turning us toward the notion of knowledge as more about ourselves and our agentic choices. Just as we become what we eat, we become what we choose to know. Knowledge is us, and this is clear for today’s knowledge-intensive professional. But if by us we mean only what we think, we fall into the chasm of relativism that terrorizes all epistemologies. Social conformance might save us, implying that we become a member of a society or a profession as and because we share its body of knowledge. But knowledge’s susceptibility to power and history makes us cautious. Is there a more justifiable basis for justification? Pragmatism’s usefulness criterion seems a good way to go, but it is tricky to establish ahead of the action to be evaluated. Still, it brings justification back to us and our intentions.
Given doubt, and not finding definitive invariance in nature or social reality, we presume it in ourselves. Only then can our knowing be carried from one instance to another. This takes us back to the model of humans on which our epistemology stands. But as we probe our agency, we find imagination as well as rationality. Doubt attacks reasoning, interfering with computation and action; the computer freezes, yet we act anyway. John Locke (1632–1704) attributed this to “judgment,” our native facility to arrive at conclusions in the absence of certain knowledge, that is, under conditions of doubt. To this point, what we might mean by “not-knowledge” has been dismissed as emotion or as falsified or undiscovered knowledge. Lockean judgment, on the other hand, implies forms of knowing beyond that captured in language. This suggests two things. First, as we negotiate the lived world we draw on these extra-linguistic forms of knowing. Second, knowing is no longer the application of knowledge abstracted and brought into the reasoning process; it is more intimately wrapped into the immediacy of living. Knowing is more than representing. It includes dealing with the unrepresented aspects of being in the world. Our knowing becomes who we are, integrating a complex of memorized facts and meanings, our ability to compute, and our ability to imagine as doubt intrudes and memory or reason fail. We redefine knowledge as our identity as we engage in effective practice.
The search for objectivity is also the observer’s search for a vantage point outside and abstracted from the practice of living. Knowledge is what is left behind as the observer withdraws. In contrast, the phenomenological attitude ultimately draws us into the world, suggesting an engagement and intimacy of practice that generates a different kind of knowledge—the actor’s epistemology proposed, for example, by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). As we consider the action of the imagination as it deals with the experience of doubt, we move toward constructivist views, the idea that the only world we can know is the one we ourselves have constructed, that knowledge itself is a construction, a set of tools for dealing with living in the world. The critique must be equally applied to our assumptions about ourselves. While senses, reason, and imagination may be necessary conditions for consciousness and agency, they are not sufficient. Our sense of ourselves is also a construction of these components and, penetrated again by doubt, we never know ourselves with certainty or completely.
Following the work of Michel Polanyi (1891–1976), it has become common to use the description “tacit” to point to this extralinguistic form of knowing, covering both the ability to act under conditions of doubt and, reflexively, to bridge the gap between our sense of identity and our doubting self-knowledge. What we mean by knowledge must cover both what is known explicitly, justified true belief about the natural, social and psychological entities comprising our world, and what we know tacitly, only evident in our ability to act and sustain our identity living under the normal conditions of doubt and uncertainty. Constructivist epistemologies, such as Ernst von Glasersfeld’s (1995), show that constructing the world also sets its boundaries, the limits to what can be known about what we might refer to as the context of our situated knowledge. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), who considered all truth to be carried in language, saw practice as giving language meaning. If individuals are the only agents, then constructivism is individual. But others see knowledge and agency as intersubjective and see groups, organizations, and societies as agentic, suggesting social or collective constructionism (Nelson and Winter 1982). So to the previous modes of justification—reality, social consensus, and utility—we can add efficient practice and identity. Practice is a complex—either the deductive application of reason and explicit knowledge, or the constructive application of our judgment or imagination that indicates our tacit knowledge. The pragmatist’s utility criterion turns out to be far from project evaluation, performed from a point outside the practice itself. On the contrary, the constructivist view presupposes the instant-by-instant co-construction of meaning, context, and identity.
This multi-epistemic snapshot summarizes our different types of knowledge: realism suggests knowledge as data about the world “out there”; cognition focuses on the explicit systems of meaning we impose on our experience; while the immediacy of phenomenalism focuses us on various forms of practice, individual and collective, and the distinction between reasoning and imagining. Mnemonically we can distinguish knowledge-as-data from knowledge-as-meaning and knowledge-as-practice. In the same way that knowing embraces both what is known, memorized, and recoverable for abstract computation, it also includes the self-based judgment to cope with doubt. Practice embraces both the execution of rational plans and the recursive co-construction of self and context. Emotion is an aspect of that response, and emotional knowledge comes from observing the construction of self and being able, pragmatically, to apply that to the agentic process (Nussbaum 2001).
Today’s knowledge-intensive lives entail integrating our knowing across these distinctions, imaginatively coping with the disjunctions and distinctions entering our thinking with our epistemology-originating assumptions. Integration comes into sight as we appreciate that each type of knowledge presumes the other. There can be no mind without the brain, no knowledge without the mind, no meaning or living without practice, no data without meaning, and so forth. Each mode of justification entails the others. To grasp today’s meaning of “knowledge” we must first admit the multiple epistemologies spawned by Cartesian doubt while realizing our ability to traverse the void of doubt between them by deploying our native creativity to construct life’s seeming coherence. Knowing harnesses our imagination and reason to our senses, memory, and language as we reach out agentically to our fellows. From this vantage point, our knowing is part of our consciousness and identity, but all of a piece, embracing knower and known, as each epistemology reflects its unique axiomatic emphasis as an analytic tool, disparate elements in our doubt-pervaded toolkit.
SEE ALSO Cognition; Cognitive Dissonance; Collective Wisdom; Epistemology; Ideology; Information, Economics of; Intelligence; Intelligence, Social; Journalism; Knowledge Society; Knowledge, Diffusion of; Science; Social Cognition
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J. C. Spender
"Knowledge." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/knowledge
"Knowledge." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/knowledge
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See also 240. LEARNING ; 393. THINKING ; 405. UNDERSTANDING .
- the Skeptic doctrine that knowledge cannot be certain. —acataleptic , n.
- agnoiology, agnoeology
- Archaic. the study of human ignorance.
- antagonism to learning, education, and the educated, expressed in literature in a conscious display of simplicity, earthiness, even colorful semi-literacy. —anti-intellectual , n., adj.
- a secret or mystery; carefully hidden knowledge. See also 7. ALCHEMY . —arcana , n. pi.
- the teaching of useful knowledge. —chrestomathic , adj.
- men of learning as a class or collectively; the intelligentsia or literati.
- the state of being determinate; the quality of being certain or precise.
- a system of acquiring knowledge that rejects all o priori knowledge and relies solely upon observation, experimentation, and induction. Also empirism . —empiricist , n., adj. —empiric, empirical , adj.
- 1. the command of a wide range of knowledge.
- 2. the writings and thoughts of the 18th-century French Encyclopedists, especially an emphasis on scientific rationalism. —encyclopedist , n.
- the branch of philosophy that studies the origin, nature, methods, validity, and limits of human knowledge. —epistemologist , n. — epistemic, epistemological , adj.
- an excessive love or reverence for knowledge. —epistemophiliac , n., adj.
- a reliance on principles of empiricism in philosophy or science. —experimentalist , n.
- the characteristic of being an expert.
- 1. excessive concern for f acts.
- 2. a theory or belief relying heavily on fact. — factualist , n. — factualistic , adj.
- gnosiology, gnoseology
- the philosophy of knowledge and the human faculties for learning, Also called gnostology . —gnosiological, gnoseological , adj.
- 1. (l.c.) the claim to possess superior knowledge.
- 2. the beliefs or claims of certain religious groups or sects that they possess special religious enlightenment. —Illuminati, illuminati, Illuminist, illuminist , n.
- trifling or inconsequential facts or trivia.
- Obsolete, ignorance or the absence of knowledge. —inscient , adj.
- 1. the exercise of the intellect.
- 2. a devotion to intellectual activities.
- 3. an excessive emphasis on intellect and a resulting neglect of emotion. —intellectualistic , adj.
- intuitionalism, intuitionism.
- 1. Metaphysics. the doctrine that the reality of perceived external objects is known intuitively, without the intervention of a representative idea.
- 2. Metaphysics. the doctrine that knowledge rests upon axiomatic truths discerned intuitively.
- 3. Ethics. the doctrine that moral values and duties can be perceived directly. Also called intuitivism . —intuitionalist, intuitionist , n.
- the method used by Socrates in bringing forth knowledge through questions and insistence upon close and logical reasoning. —maieutic , adj.
- the doctrine that objects of knowledge have no existence except in themindof theperceiver. —mentalist , n. —mentalistic , adj.
- a hatred of reason, reasoning, and knowledge. —misologist , n.
- Epistemology. a theory that the object and datum of cognition are identical.
- 1. universal or inflnite knowledge.
- 2. the state of being all-knowing. Also Obsolete, omniscious . —omniscient , adj.
- a method or means for communicating knowledge or for philosophical inquiry.
- 1. the possession of universal knowledge. Cf. pansophy .
- 2. the claim to such enlightenment. —pansophist , n. —pansophistical , adj.
- 1. a universal wisdom or encyclopedie learning.
- 2. a system of universal knowledge; pantology. —pansophic , adj.
- a systematic survey of all branches of knowledge. —pantologist , n. —pantologic, pantological , adj.
- the doctrine that asserts knowledge as relative to sensory perception. —perceptionist , n.
- 1. Rare. a lover of learning.
- 2. (cap.) an advocate of Philonism. Also spelled Philonist.
- a state or quality of full confidence or absolute certainty.
- a person of exceptionally wide knowledge; polymath. —polyhistoric , adj.
- the possession of learning in many fields. —polymath , n., adj.
- the theory that perception gives the mind an immediate cognition of an object. —presentationalist, presentationist , n.
- in the Middle Ages, one of the two divisions of the seven liberal arts, comprising arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. See also trivium .
- a scholar or person of great learning.
- a superficial knowledge, especially when pretentiously revealed. —sciolist , n. —sciolistic, sciolous , adj.
- a supposed knowledge of natura! and supernatural forces, usually based upon tradition rather than ascertained fact, as astrology and phrenology. —sciosophist , n.
- the theory of the use of signs, especially words, in their relation to knowledge and cognition.
- a theory of symbology that embraces pragmatics and linguistics. —semiotic , adj.
- 1. a devotion or restriction to a particular pursuit, branch of study, etc.
- 2. a field of specialization within a science or area of knowledge, as otology within medicine. —specialist , n. —specialistic , adj.
- the study and description of arts and sciences from the point of view of their historical development, geographical, and ethnic distribution.
- clairvoyance or other occult or supernatural knowledge.
- unimportant, trifling things or details, especially obscure and useless knowledge. —trivial , adj.
- in the Middle Ages, one of the two divisions of the seven liberal arts, comprising logic, grammar, and rhetoric. See also quadrivium .
"Knowledge." -Ologies and -Isms. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
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In Indian religions, the tension is equally evident. Vidyā is the all-important counter-availing value. Ignorance (avidya) is the deepest fault and impediment which has to be dealt with if any progress is to be made toward a higher goal. Thus jñāna-marga (the way of knowledge) is one of the three ways (mārga) leading, in Hinduism, toward enlightenment and release (mokṣa). Avidya is countered by vidyā, samjña, prajña. Yet it is clearly recognized that there are different levels of knowledge, of which the earlier (e.g. knowledge of texts) is necessary, but comes to be seen as a kind of ignorance, compared with direct knowledge of Brahman.
"Knowledge." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
"Knowledge." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
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knowl·edge / ˈnälij/ • n. 1. facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject: a thirst for knowledge. ∎ what is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information: the transmission of knowledge. ∎ Philos. true, justified belief; certain understanding, as opposed to opinion. 2. awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation: the program had been developed without his knowledge. • adj. relating to organized information stored electronically or digitally: the knowledge economy.
"knowledge." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge-1
"knowledge." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge-1
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Hence knowledg(e)able †(f. the vb.) recognizable XVII; (f. the sb.; orig. dial.) well informed XIX.
"knowledge." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge-2
"knowledge." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge-2
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to the best of one's knowledge as far as one knows; judging from the information one has.
See also safe in the knowledge that, tree of knowledge.
"knowledge." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
"knowledge." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
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"knowledge." A Dictionary of Computing. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/computing/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
"knowledge." A Dictionary of Computing. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/computing/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge
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"knowledge." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge-0
"knowledge." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/knowledge-0