views updated May 08 2018


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. 428348 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 apprehendsa 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 (384322 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 concretea 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 (18441900) 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. 540c. 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 (354430). 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. 1214c. 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 [14801521] 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 devicesall in the headfor 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. 123124. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. (Emphasis added).

Thomas Aquinas (12251274) 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. 13001358) 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 (15961650) are not notably different from the reasonable account that is Plato's criterion of epistēmē- knowledge. Even supposedly "empirical" philosophers like John Locke (16321704) 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 (15641642), Robert Boyle (16271691), Isaac Newton (16421727), and others. The first attempt to describe the experimental method was by Francis Bacon (15611626). 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 (17881860) 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 (18381916), and the American PragmatistsCharles Sanders Peirce (18381914), William James (18421910), and John Dewey (18591952), who reached conclusions not dissimilar to those of Nietzsche.

Sociology of knowledge.

Twentieth-century thinkers influenced by Auguste Comte (17981857) and Karl Marx (18181883) 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. 360c. 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 (15331592), Descartes, Pierre Bayle (16471706), and David Hume (17111776). Yet Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) 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 [18911970]), as well as positivism's discontents (Willard Van Orman Quine [19082000]), heretics (Ludwig Wittgenstein [18891951]), and satellites (Bertrand Russell [18721970], Karl Popper [19021994]). 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 (18731958), J. L. Austin (19111960), and Gilbert Ryle (19001976). 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.

Evolutionary epistemology.

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 (19031989). 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.

Continental Philosophy

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 (19261984). 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, 19801984.

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.

Barry Allen


views updated May 17 2018

Kim Addonizio

Author Biography
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Kim Addonizio's poem "Knowledge" is a twenty-line free-form poem, with no rhyme scheme. Indeed, free verse has no distinct limits or rules and so does not restrict the poet to a particular format. In "Knowledge," Addonizio's narrator asks the reader to consider whether the horrors of modern life are limited in some way to the tragedies to which one has already been exposed. "Knowledge" appears in Addonizio's fourth book of poetry, What Is This Thing Called Love, published in 2004. The collection is divided into five sections, with the first devoted to love, the second to death, the third to the world, the fourth to drinking, and the fifth to no topic in particular. "Knowledge" is found in the third section.

The poem focuses on the most horrific things that take place in the world, although it does not mention any horrors in particular. Addonizio begins the poem with a lengthy dependent clause that allows the reader to slowly come to an understanding of the assertion that even though one might think one knows the depth of human cruelty and the extremes of barbarity, some events can still prove utterly appalling. As she suggests in the last line, one might remain frightened that even worse acts are yet to come. Addonizio uses the second-person "you" throughout the poem, inviting the reader in as a participant in her very personal exploration of the horrors that continue to shock the world.

Author Biography

Kim Addonizio was born in Washington, D.C., on July 31, 1954, as one of five children of Pauline Betz Addie, a U.S. tennis champion in the 1940s, and Bob Addie, a sportswriter for the Washington Post. Addonizio moved to San Francisco, California, in 1976, where she worked in a succession of jobs as secretary, waitress, and office clerk. She began writing poetry in her twenties. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from San Francisco State University when she was twenty-eight years old, in the same year that her daughter was born. In 1986, after another four years of part-time classes, Addonizio earned a master's degree in fine arts.

In 1987, Addonizio published several poems in collaboration with two other poets in a book of poetry called Three West Coast Women. She received her first National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1990, which gave her the economic freedom to focus on her poetry. At the age of forty, she published her first book of her own poetry, The Philosopher's Club (1994). Subsequently, she won a second NEA grant in 1995 and published Jimmy & Rita, a verse novel, in 1997. She won a Pushcart Prize and the Chelsea Poetry Award in 1998 and was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award for Poetry for her third collection, Tell Me (2000). She was awarded the James Dickey Prize for poetry in 2001 and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

"Knowledge" is from Addonizio's 2004 collection, What Is This Thing Called Love. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and published her first novel, Little Beauties, in 2005. She has spent most of her adult life living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has also occasionally taught classes on poetry at regional colleges.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

Poem Summary

Lines 1-6

The first several lines of "Knowledge" contain a dependent clause that forces the reader to continue reading without understanding the intent of the rumination until the middle of line 6. The first line suggests that the poem will explore events or behaviors that are outside the ordinary events of daily life. The words "Even when you know" imply that one can still be surprised, that not everything can be understood or anticipated. The second line continues in this mode, with the addition of "even when you pride yourself." The inclusion of the word "pride" clarifies how fully the poem's addressee, "you," claims to understand the world, in that this person is proud of this knowledge. Thus, the reader may anticipate that the narrator is asserting that even those who understand the cruelty and arbitrariness of the world can still be surprised by the level of cruelty that is inflicted on innocent people. She expands on this point in line 3 when she points out that unflinchingly studying history or watching the news still may not prepare one for the barbarities to which some people can subject others. That is, no history book, newspaper, or newscast can prepare a reader or viewer for the horrors that will be committed. This line makes clear that, for example, forcing people to study the Nazi Holocaust does not mean that they can be ready to objectively understand the situation when such an event occurs again.

In line 4, Addonizio continues the topic of line 3, explaining that even when one is aware of the "quotidian," or everyday, examples of human cruelty, this awareness provides no immunity. The poet uses the word "minor" in this line to reinforce how ordinary these events have become, how unimportant they seem; that is, she stresses the theme of how accustomed people can become to other people's meanness. She labels these incidents "endless" and in the first part of line 5 refers to them as "relevant examples" of how cruel human beings can be to one another. The ideas of the first five lines culminate in line 6, where the narrator provides an independent clause to which the preceding dependent clause can be linked. (The end of line 5, "even now," is in essence an abbreviated restatement of all that appears in lines 1-5.) She proposes that no amount of study or awareness of cruelty can fully prepare one for the reality of what some human beings will do to others. This cruelty still occasionally "strikes you anew."

Lines 7-9

Once the independent clause has been provided, the thought continues at the end of line 6 and the beginning of line 7. The narrator suggests that this renewed shock might lead those who feel that shock to think that they must have previously believed "that humanity / was fundamentally good." That is, if they had truly understood the extent to which men could be evil, they would not have been shocked at all. Thus, lines 7 and 8 together suggest that a belief in the fundamental goodness of humankind is perhaps a core part of most people's ideology, whether they realize it or not—again, otherwise, they would not be shocked by the manifestation of evil. The narrator suggests that this fundamental belief in the goodness of human beings has not generally been influenced by more pessimistic views of humankind. Line 9 refers to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a pessimist who believed that people do not have individual free will but instead are subject to a vast and wicked will that is inclusive of everyone. Schopenhauer does not refer to this collective will as a god figure; rather, the source of this negative will is cosmic in origin, such that humankind is simply at the mercy of the surrounding world. In line 9, Addonizio summarizes Schopenhauer's philosophy as holding that humanity is "all blind, impersonal will."

Media Adaptations

  • Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing (2004) is an audio CD of poems read by Addonizio and Susan Browne, with musical accompaniment, produced by Dan Brown and available from Speakeasy Literary Audio.

Lines 10-12

The narrator proceeds to suggest in line 10 that people have generally been positive enough not to accept the similar contentions of Thomas Hobbes, an early-seventeenth-century philosopher who also dismissed humankind's ability to control itself. In line 10, the narrator refers to followers of Hobbes as people who might "perversely" and "gleefully" accept a pessimistic view of life. These followers would find joy in being pessimistic about the future of humankind and its ability to govern itself. The five italicized adjectives presented in line 11 illustrate the "clear-sighted" ideas put forth by Hobbes, who thought that each person should embrace determinism and do exactly as he or she desires. For Hobbes, this was freedom. Indeed, Hobbes thought that people are essentially self-serving, leading the narrator to mention the adjective "solitary." Hobbes also believed that in their natural state, people live in a state of chaos and incessant war. This is the "nasty" and "brutal" nature of humankind, which is thus often "short," or brief, in its existence. All of the words in line 12, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short," are devoid of hope for the future. These words contradict the optimism with which most people struggle to understand the world.

Lines 13-18

The first words of line 13 echo the last two words of line 5: "even now." Even now, the narrator again asserts, people can be shocked by terrible cruelty, even after having witnessed so many examples of humans being cruel to other humans. Line 14 refers to this new "terrible act" that can be so horrible that we hear of it with disbelief. People are thus sent "reeling off," perhaps dizzy and unable to feel secure, as well as "overwhelmed." This feeling of helplessness leaves people unable to weep. Indeed, the "innocence" that people did not know they still possess has been with them all along, as made evident by that horror too terrible to contemplate. At the end of line 17 and the beginning of line 18-where the sentence that has constituted the entire poem to this point finally comes to a close—the narrator asserts that even when one has become too cynical, too aware of horror to believe in the goodness of human beings, the desire to want to believe still exists.

Lines 19-20

In the continuation of line 18, the narrator suggests that the desire to want to believe in the goodness of humanity has been defeated. Addonizio uses the words "shattered" and "irreparably," or beyond repair, stating that this hope might "seem" to be gone completely. Yet human beings continue to exist, despite the horror of the world and their awareness of events too terrible to easily accept or understand. The acknowledgment of this horrible reality leaves human beings "afraid." In the final lines of the poem, the narrator contends that people will remain with this devastating fear that more surprising horrors, more terrible events to "know," will come about. That is the "knowledge" of the title: the awareness that worse things may yet happen.



Addonizio's poem ends with an awareness of fear and an acknowledgment that the horrors of the past might well presage worse events in the future. She holds that one indeed has reason to be afraid, as the future will hold more to "know," more to grasp that will remind humankind that not all people are "fundamentally good," as is perhaps too often believed. Fear about what might still happen is prevalent throughout the poem; indeed, that fear is the central focus underlying the text. In spite of people's innate willingness to believe in the goodness of humankind, ample evidence of evil exists. The poet uses the word "afraid" prominently, at the end of line 19, as she brings the poem to a close. Thus, the image that she leaves with her readers is a depressing reminder that while one may believe that no event could be worse than what has already taken place, the possibility of worse horror remains. This possibility is what creates so much fear.


Much of Addonizio's poem reminds her readers that hopefulness is a natural human condition. She acknowledges that despite the evidence of "human cruelty," people spend their whole lives "believing that humanity / was fundamentally good." This is an observation that cannot be supported by the events of the past, and yet hope perseveres. Addonizio cites the most pessimistic of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer and Thomas Hobbes, as examples of pessimism that people ignore as they continue to view life optimistically. Because of this natural inclination toward hope, humankind is "stunned" when terrible events unfold. As such, when reality intrudes, people are "overwhelmed" by the events that they are unprepared to accept. Yet in the face of horrific tragedies, people need hope in order to maintain a positive existence. Without hope, despair would overtake people's lives and diminish their ability to happily exist.


Another theme in "Knowledge" highlights the ability of human beings to maintain their basic innocence in the face of terrible tragedy. She devotes the first eight lines of the poem to an extended discussion of this innocence, inserting frequent repetitions of the word "even." "Even when" and "even now" imply that even in the face of so much evidence of humankind's cruelty, people retain an unwarranted innocence with respect to the world. Addonizio indeed uses the word "innocence" to classify this ability to shift focus from horror, from "what people are capable of," to hope, despite the occurrence of tragedies that cannot be rationally justified or understood.


The inclusion of "Knowledge" in Addonizio's collection of poems What Is This Thing Called Love illustrates the complexities of that sentiment. One of love's greatest assets is its ability to endure, even when death or tragedy intervenes. In a way, love cannot exist without fear—fear that the object of that love will be injured or die. In the final lines of "Knowledge," Addonizio focuses on the awareness that terrible evil can occur, leaving people afraid that even more danger exists. The fear of losing those who are loved motivates much of that worry, and yet love is what turns people away from the pessimism of Schopenhauer and Hobbes and toward a fundamental belief in the goodness of humankind. Love connects us all and allows us to endure.

Topics For Further Study

  • Take the first line of Addonizio's poem "Knowledge" and use it as the first line of your own poem. Your poem should contain at least twenty lines and should continue Addonizio's line to whatever conclusion fits your own subject or ideas. Your poem may mirror Addonizio's technique, in that it can be free verse, without a specific rhyme scheme. Your poem should also incorporate a similar style. For instance, try to create a lengthy dependent clause that leads into the main point of the poem.
  • Research the history of al Qaeda and its relationship to the Taliban. Write an essay in which you discuss your research and the roles that the United States and the former Soviet Union played in the creation of the conflict in Afghanistan. Be sure to include information about how the Taliban became associated with al Qaeda and the role of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan's history.
  • Write a report in which you compare the philosophical ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer and Thomas Hobbes. Then create a poster that details the differences and similarities of these two men's ideas and present the poster and your report to your class.
  • Nelly Sachs also wrote poems about the horrors that men inflict upon one another, such as in her book The Seeker and Other Poems, published in 1970. Select at least two poems written by Sachs and compare them to Addonizio's poem. Consider the similarities and differences found in the verse of these two women. Write an essay in which you discuss the different ways in which they give voice to death and fear. Be sure to include quotations from the authors' poems in your essay.


Understanding is a theme in Addonizio's poem that unites the many other themes regarding love, hope, and innocence. Understanding requires an acknowledgment and an acceptance of the realities of the world. Horror and "relevant examples of human cruelty" exist—but so does a belief in the goodness of humanity. The awareness of these differing elements of human existence fosters understanding of the complexity of human beings. Addonizio's poem points out that humankind remains innocent even in the face of its past experiences. This does not necessitate the ignoring of reality; indeed, several lines of the poem maintain that people are not "evading history" or ignoring the news. That is, a willingness to accept evil while still maintaining hope does not suggest ignorance. Rather, humankind understands that evil exists, and while people may fear it, they must still find ways to live, love, and nurture themselves in a world filled with risk. Understanding that evil exists does not entail succumbing to fear. Addonizio suggest this very notion in line 19, when she writes that "you have to go on." Being afraid of danger is an important part of understanding the risks of living.


Free Verse

Free verse is verse with no discernible structure, rhyme scheme, or meter. Free verse allows the poet to fit the poetic line to the content of the poem. Thus, the poet is not restricted by the need to shape the poem to a particular meter but can instead create complex rhythm and syntax. Free verse is not the same as blank verse, which also does not use a rhyme scheme. Blank verse almost always adheres to iambic pentameter, where each line contains ten syllables in the form of five iambic feet, each of which is composed of an unstressed syllable followed by an accented syllable. By contrast, free verse relies on line breaks to create a rhythm. Free verse is most often associated with modern poetry, such as with Addonizio's poem. Indeed, no pattern of rhyme or meter can be found in "Knowledge"; instead, the irregular line breaks give the poem a rhythm that is best appreciated in hearing it read aloud.

Line Breaks

Line breaks are a defining element of poetry. They can be used to impart varied meaning to lines, to focus the reader on certain ideas, to create rhyme or rhythm, or to lend a specific appearance to the poem on the page. Addonizio most pointedly uses line breaks to impart meaning and to emphasize ideas. The use of a dash at the end of line 11, as followed by the list of words in line 12 ("solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short"), emphasizes the importance of these words. Addonizio also uses the line break to build tension at the end of line 5, putting more emphasis on the words "even now." Placing the conclusion of the clause on the next line helps to sustain that tension.

Narrative Poetry

Narrative poetry is a form in which the author tells a story. Like a short story, a narrative poem generally has a beginning, middle, and clear ending or resolution. Not all narrative poems follow this formula, however; some narrative poems reflect the author's artistic interpretation of events. In these cases, the narration is less structured. Addonizio might have chosen to write a poem that recounted a specific frightening moment and then explained that this event left her frightened for the future. Had she done so, her poem may have been less powerful. Instead, she begins her poem with the disillusionment that she felt when she realized that the world in which she trusted had seemingly disappeared. No actual events are mentioned, but the fact that the narration concerns a certain event is implied. This approach allows Addonizio to universalize her artistic vision, which ends with the prophecy that worse events (also undescribed) are possible, such that the poem becomes more powerful to the reader.


Parallelism refers to a repetition in style or words within a poem. This device is one way to express several ideas of comparable importance in a similar manner or to establish the importance of a particular idea. Addonizio uses parallelism to set the tone of the poem and to create tension. For example, the opening words of line 1, "even when," are balanced with the closing words of line 5, "even now." Also, the opening words in line 1 are repeated as the opening words in line 2. Another example of this device occurs when the closing words of line 5, "even now," are repeated at the beginning of line 13. This use of parallelism focuses the reader's attention on these lines and signifies that they are important elements of the poem.

Historical Context

Addonizio's poem tells her readers about "some terrible act that sends you reeling off." Many such acts occurred during Addonizio's lifetime as well as in the years before her birth. As she observes in her poem, some events are so shocking that "even when you know" what people are capable of doing to one another, these appalling acts defy belief. In many ways, the twentieth century was defined by a succession of genocides, including that of the Armenians in Turkey (1915–1918), Stalin's crushing of the Ukrainian revolt (1932–1933), the Japanese murder of Chinese in Nanking (1937–1938), the Nazi Holocaust (1938–1945), the Khmer Rouge's slaughter of Cambodians (1975–1979), the Rwandan slaughter of Tutsis (1994), and the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia (1992–1995). Through these events, upward of seventeen million people were killed simply because they were of a particular race or ethnic group or because they practiced a particular religion. Many acts of individual terrorism also occurred. The Palestine Liberation Organization was responsible for the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, as well as many attacks in the Middle East. Also, the Irish Republican Army carried out various attacks in Great Britain. By 1995, terror was no longer limited to areas outside the United States. That year an American terrorist blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

The first several years of the twenty-first century were also characterized by death and terrorism. On the morning of September 11, 2001, nearly three thousand people died in attacks on the World Trade Center, in New York City, and the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C., along with the crash of a hijacked plane in Pennsylvania. These incidents of terrorism seemed more shocking than those of previous centuries, and as Addonizio suggests in the final lines of her poem, such events leave people frightened that "there is more to know." The September 11 attacks led to the U.S. involvement in a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, who were at the time that nation's ruling faction. The Taliban, a name derived from an Arabic word for "religious students," was originally composed of revolutionaries who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989). Once they gained control of most of their nation, the Taliban instituted strict Islamic rule, even while a civil war continued against the Northern Alliance, who also controlled part of Afghanistan. The Taliban was closely aligned with the militant organization al Qaeda and allowed that group's religious fundamentalist leader, Osama bin Laden, to establish training camps for terrorists. Al Qaeda was responsible for the events of September 11, 2001.

Although the Taliban eventually was ousted from Afghanistan, many members remained in hiding and continued to plan terrorist activities. Indeed, attacks took place in Istanbul, Turkey, and Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003; in Madrid, Spain, in 2004; and in London, England, in 2005. Other attacks were executed throughout the world, and although no additional terrorist attacks were launched in the United States after 2001, warnings of possible attacks have sporadically arisen. These warnings have heightened public awareness, but they also have fostered feelings of vulnerability and fear. As Addonizio tells her readers, examples of human cruelty are "endlessly apparent" and serve to remind people that they have reason to be afraid. The final line of her poem leaves readers with what is almost a warning—that "one day" people will witness even worse examples of human cruelty.

Critical Overview

Critical reviews of Addonizio's fourth collection of poetry, What Is This Thing Called Love, were mixed. In Publishers Weekly, an anonymous reviewer states that the collection is written in a style that is "two parts confessional, one part standup comedy, and one part talking blues." The reviewer also notes that "Addonizio's in-your-face persona and her avoidance of technical difficulty should help her attract the wide audience she explicitly invites." A more favorable review of Addonizio's book was published in Booklist. The reviewer, Donna Seaman, claims that "Addonizio's poems are like swallows of cold, grassy white wine" in that they "go down easy and then, moments later, you feel the full weight of their impact." Seaman also observes that Addonizio's poems are "finely crafted and irreverent" as well as "timeless in their inquiries into love and mortality." According to Seaman, the poems are "rife with mystery and ambivalence, and [are] achingly eloquent in their study of the conflictful union of body and soul."

Diane Scharper's review of Love for Library Journal was less enthusiastic. Scharper compares Addonizio's collection to Anne Sexton's collection Love Poems (1969) and declares that Addonizio is "neither as sharpedged nor as passionate as Sexton." Rather, Addonizio's poems are "lukewarm and 'cool' at their best" and are best suited "for larger public libraries." William Logan's review in New Criterion was even more negative. In an article that is largely an attack on modern poetry, Logan begins by referring to Addonizio as "a hot babe who can bang out a sonnet on demand." This comment is not meant to be flattering, as the remainder of the review makes clear. Logan claims that Addonizio's poetry is "part of the latest contemporary manner—ha! ha! poetry can be just as dumb as television, too!" Logan continues his review with the comment that "too many of Addonizio's poems are made in Betty Crocker style, all helpful hints and ingredients whipped in a jiffy for a dish tasteless as a stuffed pillow." Logan concludes by suggesting that the problem with modern poetry is that too often the poet does not have anything to say. None of these reviews mention "Knowledge" specifically, instead focusing on the collection of poems as a whole.


Sheri Metzger Karmiol

Metzger Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses Addonizio's poem as a conduit to understanding the common sentiment of fear and the emotional toll exacted when the illusion of safety no longer exists.

One of the ways in which poetry speaks to its reader is through its ability to reach deep inside that reader and stir memories, and sometimes fears, of an event or time already past. Film does this, of course. Sitting in a darkened theater also gives filmgoers the opportunity to immerse themselves in a world they might otherwise never experience. For the film audience, however, the experience will be the same, or at least similar, for each person viewing the film. That is, unless a film is extremely abstract, most viewers will respond with similar emotions. Most people will react to the villain and identify with the heroic lead in the same manner, or perhaps the plot will be familiar in some universal way and thus instantly recognizable to the audience. Regardless of the content, a connection, a common experience, is fostered among the members of the audience. Poetry creates a connection between art and audience as well, yet a difference exists with respect to the commonality of experience. With poetry, each reader's experience will be unique, as a poem can suggest various images or realities, depending entirely on each reader's individual experiences.

Addonizio's poem "Knowledge" is a prime example of a poem that can mean different things to different people. Is the poem about terrorism as mass murder, or could it be about the particularly cruel murder of just one innocent victim? It might also be about the random murder of office workers by a deranged individual. Regardless of the specific intent of the poem, which only Addonizio can address, the knowledge that a new danger has emerged in the world, even when that world is strictly a personal one, will have an impact on every person who reads the poem.

For some people, "Knowledge" may bring forth images of the many genocides of the past fifty years—the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia—all of which left legacies of hate and horror in the late twentieth century. For others, the poem will suggest a more immediate, personal tragedy, such as the death of a child or spouse as a result of the actions of another person. Interviews with Addonizio suggest that the poem was possibly inspired by terrorism. For those who have lived under the threat of terrorism since 2001, Addonizio's poem recalls the devastating destruction of the World Trade Center complex on September 11 of that year. Her opening line, "Even when you know what people are capable of," may leave readers recalling the shock they felt as they watched and then rewatched the collapse of the twin towers on that sunny morning. That tragedy was clearly not an accident but the deliberate murder of thousands of innocent people. The resulting shock was profound in large part because of the absolute evil of the event.

Indeed, evil speaks to Addonizio. In a November 2000 interview for the literary newspaper Poetry Flash, she explained to Leza Lowitz that evil is "one of the things I obsess about. Evil and suffering and power—all of that." She further noted that the "whole question of good and evil" is a theme she pursued ever since she became aware that, eventually, innocence "is going to be crushed, somehow." According to Addonizio, people have to come to an understanding of the cruelty of the world "in order to survive." This is an important theme in "Knowledge," which ends with the suggestion that everyone will soon know that innocence has no place in this world. Although this interview predated the terrorism of 2001, Addonizio's words suggest the kind of response that she might have had to that attack.

Throughout "Knowledge," Addonizio sustains a dialogue that explores feelings of disbelief in the face of events so horrific that innocence must surely be eradicated. She ends her poem with the warning that although "there is more to know," there is also reason to be afraid. The fear that "one day you will know it" is what many people experience each time another terror alert is announced, each time a new message from terrorists is released, and each time another bombing occurs, even in some far-off country. In a fall 2001 interview with Tod Marshall for his book Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, Addonizio related that a month after the September 11 attacks, she went to see a museum exhibit on torture. This exhibit and the World Trade Center destruction combined to throw her "into complete despair about the innate evil of our species." She became aware that the modern world has brought about new risks; she told Marshall, "Here we are at war again, and there are real dangers to our survival." This fear of not surviving is projected in line 18 of "Knowledge," where Addonizio writes that "hope has been shattered now." In line 19 she asserts that once that hope is gone, people have very good reason to be "afraid."

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Philosopher's Club (1993) is Addonizio's first collection of poetry. This small book of fewer than eighty pages is filled with a diverse collection of poems on topics ranging from death to teenage drinking to the world of Anne Frank, a victim of the Holocaust. Here, too, are poems about aspects of women's lives, including the love a mother feels in carrying her daughter to bed and the realization that as daughters grow up, they also grow away.
  • Jimmy & Rita (1996) is a verse narrative by Addonizio, focusing on the lives of a young boxer and a prostitute.
  • Addonizio's collection Tell Me (2000) was nominated for a National Book Award. It is similar to her other collections in that the poems are sometimes based on her own experiences and are very realistic in their subject content, ranging from divorce to love to spending too much time in a bar.
  • Addonizio cowrote The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997) with Dorianne Laux. This book is designed as a textbook for writing poetry, with topics such as choosing a subject and crafting an actual poem.
  • What We Carry (1994), by Dorianne Laux, is a collection of poems covering topics as varied as the innocence of childhood and life at forty. Like Addonizio, Laux writes poems about real women and their experiences, and her work is equally accessible. She does not rely on poetic devices that might confuse readers, instead using her poetry to tell stories about ordinary people in such a way that everyone can understand her messages.
  • In his novel September 11 from the Inside (2003), Rubram Fernandez presents a fictional account of what experiencing the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, might have been like. Fernandez tries to recreate the stories of those who were on the hijacked planes as well as those who were in the attacked buildings, blending historical details with fictional characters.
  • Dear Zoe (2005), by Philip Beard, is the story of a young girl whose sister dies in an automobile accident on September 11, 2001. While the rest of the world focuses on the attacks against the United States, Zoe's older sister tries to separate her grief at her sister's death from the larger grief of the nation. This book specifically targets young adult readers.

In a profile published in the San Francisco Reader, Jerry Karp claims that Addonizio "has an uncanny ability to apply fresh and urgently personal perspectives to recognizable moments of crisis and calm." This is precisely what she has done with "Knowledge." In referring to an incident so horrible that people find it difficult to comprehend, she has articulated—whether intentionally or not—the grief, disbelief, and fear that gripped the United States in the years following September 11, 2001. Karp quotes Addonizio as remarking that she is "interested in communication, and in talking about things that are common to people's experience," such as "love and loss and death and time and feeling afraid." The emotions of hope and fear are also part of love; thus, the appearance of a poem about the loss of innocence in a collection of poetry titled What Is This Thing Called Love is perhaps appropriate. Falling in love and sharing someone else's life puts a lover at risk of heartache and loss. Terrorists do not care about the loves of those whom they kill, but empathy for those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks is part of the common emotional experience of that day.

The commonality of experience is what appeals to Addonizio; as such, she wants her poetry to be accessible, which is why so many people can find meaning in "Knowledge." In the interview with Marshall, she states that she is not interested in creating poetry that does not effectively communicate a message. She believes "in narrative, in story" and not "in destroying meaning." In telling Marshall that she believes that "language was developed over millions of years as a way to communicate," Addonizio clarifies why a poem like "Knowledge" works so well to capture the emotions of her readers. Readers understand the disbelief and the feeling that although "endlessly apparent / and relevant examples of human cruelty" have come to pass, people can still be sent "reeling off, too overwhelmed / even to weep." The experience of horror on September 11, 2001, was shared by everyone who could turn on a television set and watch the events replayed endlessly. Even after witnessing the towers fall a dozen or more times, one could still be shocked at "what people are capable of."

Addonizio's poem reminds her readers of this shock because of its clarity. The poet makes no effort to deliberately obscure meaning or create a level of complexity that only literary critics might comprehend. Instead, the poem and the emotions articulated are easily accessible. This is what Addonizio told Ryan G. Van Cleave she wants her poetry to accomplish in an interview published in the Iowa Review. Van Cleave titled this interview "Kim Addonizio: A Poet with Duende." Something with duende, a word with Spanish origins, is irresistibly attractive. That label would please Addonizio, who tells Van Cleave that while there is "nothing wrong with difficult poetry," she "can't write that kind of thing." She wants her poetry to be easy to understand, though not simple; she wants to write well, and she wants her poetry to be complex "where life is complex." She accomplishes this with "Knowledge," which captures not just an event but also the emotional toll of that event.

The ability to tell a story that speaks to readers and perhaps changes the world is a rare gift. In an interview with Jalina Mhyana for the online literary magazine Rock Salt Plum Poetry Review, Addonizio discusses the importance of writing political poems, stating that "it's everyone's responsibility to tackle injustice, one way or another." She believes that poetry is one way to illuminate and perhaps bring an end to injustice. Whether a poem like "Knowledge" can bring an end to the horrors of terrorism cannot be predicted. But it is clear that poetry such as Addonizio's can help readers understand the commonality of experience. A poem can help a reader contemplate the emotions of the moment, the fears that transport people when they are reminded of the risks they face, and the possibility that certain types of innocence will never again exist—and indeed, "Knowledge" fits that description quite well.

Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "Knowledge," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, he explains that "Knowledge" breaks from the common poetic practice of using direct experience to convey thoughts and emotions, managing to be powerful even while filled with abstract concepts.

Throughout the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries, poets, critics, and teachers have held the position that sensory experience is the standard by which to judge effective poetry. Beginning writers, in search of the techniques that will make it possible for them to communicate effectively with their audiences, are continuously exhorted to "show, don't tell." Beginning readers, who are not trained in the skills needed to extract meaning from the raw situations presented, end up confused and wishing someone would explain to them the mysteries of a poem that refuses to make clear its point.

This emphasis on physical imagery derives principally from the theoretical scaffold built by the poet T. S. Eliot, who, in his 1919 critique of Shakespeare's Hamlet (quoted in Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction), proposed that effective writing relies on an "objective correlative": that is, he suggested, a specific object or sequence of events must be used, instead of generalized and vague language, to evoke consistent responses from all readers, regardless of their personal histories. Eliot's point, which has since his time become almost universally accepted, is that it does no good to write with words that talk about ideas or emotions, because they mean different things from one person to the next. For example, one reader might imagine that the phrase "I hate this" to mean a burning, seething animosity toward whatever the object is, while another reader might take the phrase to imply just a mildly strong dislike. To convey the desired message, the writer would be better off showing an action toward the hated object, such as glaring, striking, or destroying. Abstract terms are too removed from actual human experience to make readers feel emotions deeply: a poet trying to communicate on a level that strikes readers emotionally would do better to write in terms of things that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted. These are the ways all people, regardless of their intellectual practices, know the world.

While this is standard practice in modern poetry, there are, of course, exceptions: rules are made to be broken. One particularly successful exception to the rule about showing and not telling is Ad-donizio's "Knowledge." Readers who have a general familiarity with Addonizio's work know that she is best known as a sensualist, a writer not afraid to address her poetry to the basic, less-refined aspects of human behavior, particularly erotic behavior. As such, she might be expected to use physical imagery even more than the average poet in relating to the audience. But there is a social aspect to behavior that erotic poetry must address, and to the degree that this is her subject matter, Addonizio is something of a sociologist. She concerns herself with objective reality, of course, but there is also a strong vein of the theoretical throughout her poetry. This is taken to an extreme in "Knowledge," where the subject matter is the process of abstract intellectualization itself: despite the basic tenant of the objective correlative, this is a poem that cannot reach out to readers by bringing them to a common ground in the physical world.

The poem concerns the acquisition of abstract knowledge: the kind that is not gained from immediate personal experience but is instead brewed within an individual's mind, developed by musing on implications echoing from previous experiences. Over the course of twenty lines, Addonizio discusses the capacity of humans to arrive at shocking realizations, so shocking that they can change a person's view of the world. But the poem itself does not contain anything shocking. Instead of hitting readers hard with the direct experience of the sort of "terrible act" that can remind one of long-lost innocence, move one to tears, and make one reconsider one's deepest cynicism, she merely refers to an act and tells readers to accept that the act is indeed terrible. Each reader is free to imagine what that terrible act might be. When Addonizio gives a list of "clear-sighted adjectives" cribbed from the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, it contains words that are not comfortable, but that does not mean that they are powerful, either. "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short" may bring to mind the unwanted facts of life, but they are not words that force readers to take life's horrors to heart.

The benefit of this is that readers can fill in the poem with their own sense of what is shocking. The drawback is that the poet loses control of the meanings that readers take from it. Abstract language raises the likelihood that the different possible readings will produce interpretations of the poem that are not within the range of the poet's intention. Because the poem is built on abstractions, it can mean different things in different circumstances. Addonizio seems to welcome this span of meaning, taking the risk of diverse feelings about the poem as a price that has to be paid if one is to explore the topic of abstract thought at all.

One reason "Knowledge" is able to operate without giving any of the specific "endlessly apparent / and relevant examples of human cruelty" that it talks about is that it is carefully, meticulously structured. The words that make up the poem may not be the jarring physical experiences that Eliot required, but they are indeed evocative of a certain kind of intellectualism that people use to avoid thinking of reality's horrors. When Addonizio refers to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's phrase about "blind, impersonal will," she uses words that sound as if they should mean more but end up hollow. All of her references to philosophy, in fact, serve to establish the world of this particular poem as being far removed from experience. Other words that Addonizio has chosen, including "terrible," "overwhelmed," "innocence," "hope," and especially "quotidian," are so abstract that they do not even pretend to come close to hands-on experience. If the poem were trying to follow Eliot's theory, it might be deemed a failure, but Addonizio makes it clear with her word choices that she has no interest in being held to such a basic rule.

While the words used in "Knowledge" might be overly intellectual, Addonizio gives the poem a musical cast that makes art of them. For one thing, the use of "even" throughout the first half of the poem makes the poet's controlling hand obvious. It acts as a sort of musical refrain, clarifying the distinction between art and thought. Addonizio also makes strong use of the second-person "you" voice. Common enough in poetry, the second-person form of address is seldom as necessary as it is in this poem, where the poet needs to do all she can to make readers connect personally with the presented ideas. Finally, there is the poem's unmistakable, undeniable sense of rhythm: Addonizio does not deal here with any standard pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, but the frequent caesuras, or pauses, give the words a lyrical cadence that abstract language about an abstract subject generally lacks. Addonizio makes use of anything that can slow the reader down—commas, dashes, periods, and line breaks—to make readers feel her verbal artistry even if they are not aware of feeling it.

After so many decades have passed by with writers being told to "show, don't tell," it is only right that a talented poet should feel free to flout that rule. In a poem like "Knowledge," in which the subject matter is itself abstract thought, Addonizio is practically obliged to tell and not show. Stripped of the techniques that give poetry its immediacy and make it a moving experience—that is, unable to appeal directly to the senses—Addonizio uses other poetic devices that subtly remind readers that this is, after all, a poem and not an essay. The fact that she does not feel the need to show, and is successful without doing so, is a clear indicator that in art rules are made to be broken.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Knowledge," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Michael Allen Holmes

Holmes is a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, he considers the contrast between the tone and content of Addonizio's poem.

One of the advantages of the poetic format, in relation to standard prose, is that it generally allows for a greater range of expression in fewer words. Many novelists have certainly defied the conventions of syntax so as to communicate their ideas most effectively. In Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac, the icon of the beat generation, crafted sentences spanning entire paragraphs and characterized by indifference to proper grammar and the widespread use of hyphens to reflect the digressive rhythm of his thoughts and actions. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian Gabriel García Marquez concludes with a forty-nine-page chapter that consists of a single sentence punctuated almost exclusively with commas, as indicative of the manner in which the main character gets swept up in his own life. With poems, meanwhile, a reader may expect to need to spend considerable time with the text in order to grasp nuances of form and language. Addonizio's twenty-line poem "Knowledge" consists of only two sentences, the first of which is seventeen and a half lines long. As such, the reader may expect that unconventional structure to serve a particular purpose, and the contemplation of that purpose may prove enlightening.

Indeed, given the length of that first sentence, "Knowledge" has an undeniable breathless quality about it. Addonizio repeats a number of words and phrases, perhaps less to specifically emphasize those phrases than to impart a certain emotional enthusiasm. The first and second lines both begin with "even when," while "even now" appears in lines 5 and 13, "even" in line 15, and "now" in line 18. The term "as though" appears in lines 6 and 8, and "thought" appears in lines 8 and 16. Apart from the title, the word "know" appears in lines 1 and 2 and twice in the last line. Meanwhile, readers cannot forget that they are being addressed by the narrator of the poem, as "you," in some form, appears sixteen times. Thus, the reader may imagine the narrator to be delivering the poem with particular effusiveness, as if unable, or unwilling, to separate her thoughts into smaller, more coherent units; in interviews, Addonizio has professed her fascination with the social setting of the bar, and one might imagine her passionately addressing a friend at length over a drink in the manner of this poem.

Yet the content of the poem seems to belie that impression regarding the tone. The "you" of the poem is assigned a fair degree of personality. This subject is understood to be socially aware, being familiar with the "endlessly apparent / and relevant examples of human cruelty" from both historic and current events. The subject is also versed in philosophy, having studied the German Arthur Schopenhauer and the Englishman Thomas Hobbes. The narrator initially suggests that the "you" has spent his or her "whole life believing that humanity / was fundamentally good"; however, in further suggesting that this subject has "never chanted perversely, almost gleefully" the list of negative adjectives associated with Hobbes, the reader has no choice but to believe that the "you" has, in fact, chanted those adjectives just so. That is, the adverbs "perversely" and "gleefully" seem to have been chosen to reveal that the "you" did once sink into such a pessimistic state of mind. The remainder of the poem suggests that despite the worldly knowledge already possessed by the subject, she may still find innocence she did not know she still possessed to be "shattered" by some additional revelation.

Given the intricacy of character assigned to this "you," the reader may understand the person in question to be the narrator herself, in the sense that one may address another as "you" merely to universalize one's own experiences. Indeed, in an interview with the Rock Plum Salt Poetry Review, regarding a poem found in one of her earlier collections, Addonizio remarked, "If you take the 'you' as a second-person narrator, then it's potentially the writer." She further stated, on the other hand, that she hoped that the reader would "start to feel like the 'you' is you … on some level." Thus, she establishes here that she has been inclined to employ the second person as a way of depicting herself while also connecting with the reader.

From there, however, the reader may notice inconsistencies regarding the subject. As noted earlier, the "you" is said to be versed in the cruelties of history and the work of at least two renowned intellectuals. Addonizio herself was born in 1954, making her fifty years of age at the time of the poem's publication. Thus, not only did she live through the politically disgraceful and widely inhumane Vietnam War, but she also would most certainly be familiar with the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust of World War II. While one could be aware that these wars took place without realizing the extent of the atrocities therein, the reader may have difficulty believing that the macabre Addonizio would lack that knowledge. (In "One Nation under God," also from What Is This Thing Called Love, one stanza, presumably with heavy sarcasm, reads, "And speaking of executions. How many / have there been lately? Not nearly enough.") With respect to the philosophers, understanding the scope of their work necessarily requires a certain distancing from the emotional trials of humanity, which makes their being mentioned in this poem somewhat counterintuitive. In an interview with the San Francisco Reader, Addonizio remarked, "I'm interested in communication, and in talking about things that are common to people's experience." In "Knowledge," if she means to speak of innocence and to connect to people with lingering innocence, the two philosophers are likely to be entirely unknown, weakening whatever connection she is seeking—unless, of course, she is seeking merely to impress her readers by mentioning such names.

Given the scope of understanding of both history and philosophy that the reader may reasonably expect Addonizio to have, the breathless, enthusiastic narrator originally envisioned, in light of the grammatical structure of the poem, would seem to be a fiction. No one familiar with the Holocaust, beyond the factual circumstances, could be genuinely "stunned" by any modern-day atrocity, unless he or she lacks the imagination to truly understand the extent of the horrors of World War II. Given Addonizio's age and poetic and intellectual experience, one may be unable to imagine her being at all naive.

Different readers may draw different conclusions from the evident contrast between the tone and content of "Knowledge." The more skeptical reader may simply perceive Addonizio as disingenuous, indirectly portraying herself, through the ambiguous "you" of the poem, as more emotionally innocent than she actually is. Another reader may interpret the tone of the poem to be substantially more complex than can be understood from the text alone. That is, if Addonizio were to read the poem aloud, she would perhaps employ inflection that the reader could not have anticipated; instead of emphatic, her reading might be understated, or melancholy, with pauses and pacing more protracted than the absence of terminal punctuation would indicate.

Yet another reader, perhaps favorably considering the poet's professed desire to communicate as effectively as possible with her readers, may conclude that she has adopted the perspective of the poem's narrator precisely because she believes that that sense of breathlessness will heighten the average reader's emotional response. In an interview with Poetry Flash, Addonizio stated, "I'm very attracted to formal verse because it's a way to put the brakes on the material; it's very comforting and ordered. Actually, I think it fits my personality very well, since I'm somewhat schizophrenic. I have a lot of chaos in me as well as a great need for order and structure. Using set forms can be a way to address that." Thus, while "Knowledge" is not an exceptionally formal poem, Addonizio perhaps envisioned its extended-sentence structure as most reflective of the sentiments she wished to convey, whether the sentiments are genuinely hers or not.

In the same interview, she commented with respect to her work, "There's a kind of tension between the impossible and the desire for something." That tension may be evident here, in that while she indeed already knows enough about the world to no longer be "stunned" by "some terrible act," she still idealizes the notion of innocence. The first sentence, spanning almost the entire poem, ends with the word "hope," which is then repeated three words later. Perhaps in her own sustained yearning for the state of innocence that all people pass through in the early years of their lives, Addonizio simply wishes to connect with those who are still especially innocent. She may wish to do this not only for her own sake but also to warn such people that one day they, too, will know better than to expect all human beings to deem life as sacred as they do.

Source: Michael Allen Holmes, Critical Essay on "Knowledge," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Diane Scharper

In the following review of What Is This Thing Called Love, Scharper compares Addonizio's work to that of Anne Sexton in her focus on the theme of love, noting a cooler and less passionate tone in Addonizio's work.

One could say that Addonizio (whose Tell Me was a National Book Award nominee) celebrates love as "a side trip./ It wasn't love for eternity, or any such crap," whereas Anne Sexton celebrated love as a grand passion. Otherwise, their work contains many similarities. Addonizio's most recent collection looks at love in all its guises, especially those concerned with a disappointing love affair, as did Sexton's 1969 book, Love Poems. Mourning the loss of love as well as the loss of sexual attractiveness that comes with aging, both collections use slang, eroticisms, and the details of contemporary urban life as a source of imagery and a way into the mostly freeverse poems. Both poets also share a tone that is simultaneously angry, sad, and brittle, although Addonizio is neither as sharpedged nor as passionate as Sexton. Sexton cared about everything, perhaps too much, and her life and poems tended to boil over—tragically. These poems, however, are lukewarm and "cool" at their best. Suitable for larger public libraries.

Source: Diane Scharper, Review of What Is This Thing Called Love, in Library Journal, Vol. 129, No. 1, January 2004, p. 118.

Bowker Magazine Group

In the following review of What Is This Thing Called Love, the writer speaks of Addonizio's poems as part intimate and candid autobiography and part "standup comedy," and notes their blues-like quality and references.

Unashamedly populist, and often charming, Addonizio's fourth book of verse explores the pleasures of sex, the pains of mourning, the efforts of raising a daughter and the difficulties of minor celebrity, setting all her musings and recollections in a style two parts confessional, one part standup comedy, and one part talking blues. Addonizio (Tell Me) makes reference both to famous bluesmen (Robert Johnson) and to their repetition-based forms. The first two parts of this five-part collection repeat single subjects as well: first the erotic life (a "31-year-old lover" "stands naked in my bedroom and nothing/has harmed him yet"), and then the dead ("no real grief left/for the man who was my father"). Exploring "the way of the world—/the sorrowful versus the happy," the rest of Addonizio's book takes up lighter, more varied subjects, often with a defter hand: "Tiffs Poem Wants to Be a Rock and Roll Song So Bad" self-mockingly "captures the essence of today's youth," while "This Poem Is in Recovery" promises "I'm not going to get drunk and take off my clothes/to sign my book for you." One poem adapts a form from Billy Collins, another responds (by name) to Sharon Olds: others recall the candid representations of (for example) Molly Peacock. Addonizio's in-your-face persona and her avoidance of technical difficulty should help her attract the wide audience she explicitly invites.

Source: Bowker Magazine Group, Review of What Is This Thing Called Love, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 250, No. 51, December 22, 2003, p. 54.

Donna Seaman

In the following review of What Is This Thing Called Love, Seaman calls attention to the "resonance" and "panache" of Addonizio's wide-ranging and ambivalent poems on love and mortality.

Addonizio's poems are like swallows of cold, grassy white wine. They go down easy and then, moments later, you feel the full weight of their impact. Her first collection, Tell Me (2000) was a National Book Award finalist, and any reader who enjoyed her candor and sexiness will find her writing here with even more panache and greater resonance. A smoky-voiced chanteuse, she sings the blues of lost youth and past wildness, protesting the assaults of age, the void left by a grown child and a deceased father, and the sorrows of loved ones battling disease. High heels and hangovers, horror movies and empty hotel rooms, regrets and resignation, elements all in Addonizio's articulation of lust, the quest for oblivion, and the body's unrelenting archiving of every pleasure and pain. For all their fleshiness, stiletto stylishness, and rock-and-roll swagger, Addonizio's finely crafted and irreverent poems are timeless in their inquiries into love and mortality, rife with mystery and ambivalence, and achingly eloquent in their study of the conflictful union of body and soul.

Source: Donna Seaman, Review of What Is This Thing Called Love, in Booklist, Vol. 100, No. 8, December 15, 2003, pp. 720-21.


Addonizio, Kim, "Knowledge," in What Is This Thing Called Love, W. W. Norton, 2004, p. 71.

Addonizio, Kim, and Jalina Mhyana, "Interview with Kim Addonizio," in Rock Salt Plum Poetry Review, Spring 2004, available online at

Addonizio, Kim, and Leza Lowitz, "Coming Out the Other Side: Talking with Kim Addonizio," in Poetry Flash, No. 289, January-March 2002, available online at

Addonizio, Kim, and Tod Marshall, "Kim Addonizio," in Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, Eastern Washington University Press, 2002, pp. 3-15.

Booth, Wayne C, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2d ed., University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 97.

Karp, Jerry, "Kim Addonizio Tells Us," in the San Francisco Reader, No. 1, July 2002, available online at

Logan, William, "Jumping the Shark," in New Criterion, Vol. 24, No. 4, December 2005, pp. 75-76.

Review of What Is This Thing Called Love, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 250, No. 51, December 22, 2003, p. 54.

Scharper, Diane, Review of What Is This Thing Called Love, in Library Review, Vol. 129, No. 1, January 2004, p. 118.

Seaman, Donna, Review of What Is This Thing Called Love, in Booklist, Vol. 100, No. 8, December 15, 2003, p. 720.

Van Cleave, Ryan G., "Kim Addonizio: A Poet with Duende," in Iowa Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, 2002, p. 126.

Further Reading

Behn, Robin, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, Collins, 1992.

This book is ideal for anyone who wants to learn to write poetry. The book consists of a series of exercises designed to help would-be poets find their own poetic voices and begin writing.

Germin, Pamela, Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework, University of Iowa Press, 2005.

This appropriately titled collection focuses on what women most often do in the home: housework. Many of the poems will make readers laugh, but many more will cause readers to sit up and take notice of the exceptional women poets who have written them, turning even housework into art.

Giunta, Edvige, Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Writers, Palgrave, 2002.

This book examines the ways in which Italian American women poets use their poetry as a way to identify and explore their Italian heritage. Although the author mentions Addonizio several times, none of her poems is discussed in depth.

Mullaney, Janet Palmer, ed., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets, University of Michigan Press, 1999.

This collection of fifteen interviews includes a broad spectrum of women's voices, with diversity of race, ethnicity, and age. Although Addonizio is not among them, the poets speak of topics that interest all women poets, such as women's stories and women's survival as writers.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, W. W. Norton, 2004.

This book presents an unbiased, well-researched study of these terrorist attacks by a foreign entity on U.S. soil. The work is very readable, is written in easy-to-understand prose, and provides one context for understanding the fear that Addonizio mentions in her poem.


views updated Jun 11 2018



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 networksto say nothing of laws, customs, culture, and the other aspects of social lifeso 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 (427347 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 Descartess (15961650) 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 minds 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 minds computationsfor 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 Bacons (15611626) 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 arethinking, memorizing, observing, experiencing, and so forththough 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 realitys 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 (17111776) 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 activitiesbook-learning statements in libraries or at conferences, for instance. Statements can be conjectural, as Albert Einsteins (18791955) 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 sciences 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 (19021994), 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 sciences 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 worlds 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 actors knowledge is never free of doubt, there is a crucial difference between the facts and the actors perception of them. Instead of knowing the causes that move people as objects, we seek the actors 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 actors knowledge, for this is now more than a representation to be applied through rational decision making; it is shaped by the actors 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 Kuhns (19221996), or those of sociologists of knowledge like Karl Mannheim (18931947) and Robert K. Merton (19102003), 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 realists assumption of natures 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 worlds 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 todays 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 knowledges susceptibility to power and history makes us cautious. Is there a more justifiable basis for justification? Pragmatisms 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 (16321704) 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 observers 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 knowledgethe actors epistemology proposed, for example, by Edmund Husserl (18591938) and Martin Heidegger (18891976). 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 (18911976), 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 Glasersfelds (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 (18891951), 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 justificationreality, social consensus, and utilitywe can add efficient practice and identity. Practice is a complexeither the deductive application of reason and explicit knowledge, or the constructive application of our judgment or imagination that indicates our tacit knowledge. The pragmatists 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).

Todays 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 todays 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 lifes 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


views updated Jun 08 2018


Variously defined as the act by which one becomes the other in an intentional way; the act by which one is aware of something in thought, with or without the aid of the senses; the habit or ability to recall such an act; or the matter that is the object of such an act or habit. This article discusses the common notion of knowledge, its definition and characteristics, its various classifications, and the problem it posesall from the viewpoint of Thomistic philosophy. For other views, see knowledge, theories of.

Common Notion. Knowledge rarely presents itself as a problem to the average person; he simply takes it for granted as something that in some way puts him in contact with things other than himself. He also recognizes it as something unique, even though he may not be able to define it or even to describe it articulately. This inability stems, in part, from his discerning so many different types of knowledge; for example, seeing, imagining, remembering, and reasoning can all be included under his notion. He knows facts and he knows persons; he knows his business or profession; he knows some science and some philosophy; he knows how to do certain things and how to achieve particular goals. Yet with all this he also has experience of imperfect knowledge, of ignorance, of error and mistakes, both in himself and in others.

Although such a notion of knowledge generally suffices for the average person, the philosopher cannot be satisfied with it. He must come to grips with knowledge in its proper nature and its general and detailed classifications. Reflecting upon knowledge, he notes that it poses problems: what are the processes through which it occurs; does it have any validity; what is the possibility of attaining certitude? Such questions open broad areas for investigation; yet they present such difficulty that opposed and often contradictory theories of knowledge continue to have their expositors and defenders.

Definition and Characteristics. St. thomas aquinas defined knowledge in the following terms: "The noblest way of possessing a thing is to possess it in an immaterial way, that is, by possessing its form without its matter; and this is the definition of knowledge" (In lib. de caus. 18). He thus calls attention to the fact that knowing means possessing something and making it one's own, but in a unique and peculiar way. To know a thing means not to make it one's own in a material or bodily way, but rather to make its form one's own. Since form is the perfection or determination that is distinctive in a thing and that makes it to be what it is, knowledge is making one's own the perfection of something else; the knower adds to his own perfection the perfection of another.

This definition he explains more fully by noting that the perfection a thing has in virtue of being what it is also limits it by differentiating it from other things whose perfections it lacks (De ver. 2.2). In order that there be a remedy for this type of imperfection, some beings have knowledge; this enables the perfections of one thing to be found in another. The ability to possess the perfection of other things while remaining oneself is precisely the perfection of the knower as knower. For St. Thomas, in fact, the natural end and purpose of man's existence is to have, through knowledge, the perfections of the entire universe: "The ultimate perfection to which the soul can reach is that in it there be found the whole order of the universe and its causes. This, according to the philosophers, is the ultimate end of man" (ibid. ).

Knowledge as Perfection. Such a view of knowledge eliminates the possibility that knowledge be a physical or mechanical process. It is, on the contrary, a perfection that can be found only in living things; these alone have the ability to perform immanent or self-constructing operations, i.e., actions that increase rather than decrease the perfection of the agent. More particularly, it is only in the animal kingdom that this ability is found. Here it culminates in the intellectual knowledge of man, who, although limited as a creature, is nonetheless open, through knowledge, to unlimited perfection.

Knowledge is said to be an action or an operation just as life is said to be a motion or a self-motion. According to St. Thomas, however, these expressions are "more by way of example than of definition" (In 2 anim. 1.219). Ontologically, knowledge is neither an action nor a motion; it belongs rather in the category of quality (see categories of being; action and passion). Knowing, therefore, is not doing something but becoming something. It is a self-modification brought about precisely by the objective possession of some thing other than oneself. The knower's being is expanded by the addition of a perfection previously not possessed, yet contributed by something else that has lost nothing in the giving. There has been no change such as occurs when matter receives a new form while losing an old one, but form, itself a perfection, has had new perfection added to it, and thus has been modified and perfected cognitively.

Subject and Object. It is not surprising that the capacity to share in the being of other things and make their perfections one's own should present mysterious facets and paradoxes. Knowledge, for example, forces itself upon man's attention as a number of activities occurring within him that are at the same time related to things outside him, which are thereby brought into his field of consciousness. The paradox here is that of subject and object. Knowledge never occurs except in the framework of this subject-object relatedness. Apart from knowledge, the subject has not as yet begun to be a subject but remains only an organism or a person; the object, also, has not yet begun to be an object, but is simply a thing, sensible or intelligible but not yet known. A being is constituted an object only by some relation that it begins to have to some living thing having the power of knowing.

Neither subject nor object can ever be viewed as absolutes, but only as related; otherwise knowledge itself is eliminated. This makes it necessary to reject the contemporary view of the cognitive relationship as one of self as opposed to nonself, each being regarded as an absolute. When one attempts to explain knowledge on this basis, the explanation is prejudiced and divorced from reality. Actually, in knowledge subject and object are intelligible only by correlative reference.

Interiority and Exteriority. No sooner has one become assured of the immanence and interiority of knowledge as an operation proceeding from a living being, an operation having its roots in immateriality and thus completely different from any kind of motion in matter, than he must face its opposing characteristic, viz, its exteriority, its relation to something other than the self. The paradox of subject and object is continued and deepened, a fact that tortures the modern mind into a flight to some kind of idealism wherein the mind supposedly creates its own object. But this will not do; it solves nothing and it eventually makes all knowledge unintelligible and impossible, whereas in experience knowledge is a most stubborn fact that refuses to be sequestered and quarantined in the mind as in a prison. The solution to this part of the paradox is a recognition that the object is quite real; that there is no knowledge without an object to which a subject becomes related through some type of intentionality. This means that a cognitive power is a living relation to the object that stimulated it and thereby set off the act of cognition. In this the object has neither a real relation to the subject nor any real dependence on it, although St. Thomas does maintain that the subject has a real relation to the object as that which is measured to the measure (De pot. 7.10). While using this expression, however, St. Thomas warns that the word "measure" is not to be taken quantitatively, but rather in an analogous way as relating to being and to truth (In 5 meta. 17.1003).

Consciousness. In some theories, knowledge is identified with consciousness. Despite their close connection, the two are not the same. Consciousness is a state of greater or lesser awareness in a cognitive being; as such, it should not be substantialized and made a reality in itself. A conscious act is an act of knowledge that involves knowing one's internal operations and dispositions and oneself as subject to them. These operations may in turn be acts of knowledge, but they may also be noncognitive acts, such as wishing or walking. It is also possible that knowledge occur without consciousness, as happens when one dreams or experiences an external sensation during sleep. Consciousness and knowledge are simultaneous when one knows an object and at the same time is aware of himself as knowing it. It may further be noted that analytically consciousness can be distinguished into sensory and intellectual; yet in the concrete, man has only one unified human consciousness that embraces both simultaneously.

Truth and Certitude. In the simplest act of knowledge, simple apprehension, the measuring by the object is effected automatically, with the result that apprehensive knowledge is always true and allows no room for error. This is not remarkable; it means simply that when an object is presented to a knowing power, it will be known as presented. The possibility of falsity and error arises as soon as one begins to rearrange and unify his knowledge through judgments that apply a predicate to a subject. truth is had as a property of knowledge when judgment is in harmony with being as it is in reality; otherwise falsity is present. Similarly, a judgment is said to be certain when it is enunciated with no fear of error, and merely probable when one is inclined to regard what he proclaims as true while recognizing that the opposite is also possible (see certitude).

Classification. Knowledge may be classified from many different points of view. On the basis of origin, natural knowledge, achieved by the unaided use of human cognitive powers, may be distinguished from supernatural knowledge, which derives from some divine assistance given in revelation. Knowledge gained by the unaided use of man's resources includes the greater part of human knowledge, taken in a quantitative sense, and is responsible for the development of all the sciences and arts, with the exception of sacred theology. From the standpoint of the objects that man can know, the fundamental division is that into sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge. Sense knowledge arises from the immediate impact of bodily things upon the sense organs of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. When elaborated by such internal senses as the imagination, memory, and the cogitative power, the content of sense knowledge becomes the basis for intellectual knowledge, the characteristic of which is its abstractnessa freedom and disengagement from all the conditions of material existence (see abstraction).

Intellectual Knowledge. Whereas sense knowledge is a perfection common to both animals and men, intellectual knowledge is specific to man; indeed, it is the hallmark of humanity. It enables man not merely to knowall animals can do thisbut to know abstractly, in a detached and absolute fashion. Such knowing has no counterpart in the senses, which depend on bodily organs and are limited by them and their conditions. Intellectual knowledge alone is properly called thinking, since it alone can present objects to man in the abstract mode free from the limitations and conditions of matter, time, and place. Intellectual knowledge alone, grasping not the external appearances or surface qualities of things but their very essence, penetrates to the inner reality of things and reveals in some degree what they are, rather than what they look like, taste like, or feel like. Because of this, the object of intellectual knowledge is said to be the being of things (see intellect). The wide extension of this object opens up to man the possibility of knowing things above the material order, even though the source of such knowledge always remains in sensory experience.

The product of intellectual apprehension is called the idea or concept. At first imperfect and representative of only a limited part of the reality that is their object, ideas or concepts are perfected by series of judgments and reasoning processes. Through these, intellectual knowledge expands itself and becomes more completely representative of reality. Utilizing such processes, men have gradually developed all their sciences and arts, culminating in the natural wisdom of metaphysics and the supernatural wisdom of sacred theology.

Supernatural Knowledge. The possibility of super-natural knowledge, i.e., knowledge unavailable to man by his own natural cognitive powers, is precisely the possibility of God's making known to man certain truths he could not discover by himself. A gratuitous denial of the possibility of revelation is certainly unwarranted; the acceptance of the fact of revelation is something else, but this is not the concern here. While it usually presupposes assent to the rational truths of natural religion, faith properly so-called is not to be identified with a natural acceptance; it is in itself supernatural and a gift of God. St. Paul describes the origin of supernatural knowledge with these words: "God who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world" (Heb 1.12). This supernatural knowledge, accepted by faith, has been elaborated into a series of conclusions and implications that is properly the science of sacred theology.

Actual and Habitual Knowledge. Because the sum total of a man's knowledge is not always in the forefront of his consciousness, a distinction must be made between actual and habitual knowledge. At any given moment, the activity of man's cognitive powers is producing in him actual knowledge; yet some of his powers are capable of preserving knowledge and recalling it when the objects previously known are no longer present. Although the external senses are stimulated only by objects actually present, one may have habitual knowledge both in the internal senses, e.g., in the imagination or memory, and in the intellect. This habitual knowledge is preserved through qualities that are more or less permanent, such as the phantasm on the sensory level and the idea on the intellectual. The ability to recall these at will in any particular case varies greatly and may be influenced by a wide array of situations and circumstances.

Intuitive and Discursive Knowledge. Another distinction is that between knowledge that is immediate or intuitive and that which is mediate or dicursive. In the first type, the knowledge arises either from the direct contact of the external senses with their objects or the direct intellectual grasp of a proposition whose terms are seen to be necessarily related (see intuition). In the second, there is a progression from one or more propositions to another whose truth is recognized as being based on, and implicated with, the proposition already known (see reasoning). This can occur in two ways: when the process is from the particular to the general, from facts to laws or causes, it is called induction; its opposite, deduction, arises from general propositions and proceeds to their particular application. A further distinction may be mentioned in connection with the inference involved in mediate knowledge. When the inference proceeds from cause to effect, it is said to be a priori; when the procession is from effect to cause, it is a posteriori.

Problem of Knowledge. Knowledge has always raised questions for the inquiring mind, and these questions take different forms depending upon the point of view of the inquirer. The psychologist, for example, wants to know what knowledge is and how it originates (see knowledge, process of). The logician searches for the laws that govern exact thinking and that must be followed if truth is to be attained (see logic). All such questions about knowledge, however, point toward the major problem of the value of knowledge. The solution of this and its attendant problems is the primary concern of epistemology.

It has been frequently taken for granted that before anyone can enter the temple of wisdom, he must begin with a critique of knowledge to determine, at the beginning, whether or not his ideas correspond with reality. This method was inaugurated by R. descartes and I. kant, and perfected by their followers. So deeply were their disciples convinced of its necessity that they tended to make the problem of the critique of knowledge not merely the preliminary question but the entire content of philosophical investigation.

Actually, however, it is impossible to begin all investigation with a critique of knowledge, if only because a critique of knowledge presupposes both a psychology and a metaphysics. Man does not first know knowledge; he first knows things. St. Thomas points out that all man's knowledge originates from knowledge of first principles, and that these arise directly from sense experience (De ver. 10.6). All human knowledge is thus based on the certitudes of immediate evidence, and these form the foundation of all knowledge on both the sensory and intellectual levels. The first object of man's knowledge is the material world in which he lives, the material bodies that present themselves to his senses as the subjects of continual changes and movements. And the value of this knowledge is guaranteed by the immediate contact of the senses with their proper formal objects in material things. No bridge from subject to object is either necessary or possible. The contact is immediate and direct.

Validity of Sensation. There can be no proof, moreover, that such is the origin of human knowledge; proof must proceed from something more fundamental, and nothing can be more primitive or fundamental than the primary knowledge of the senses. Proof, again, requires a middle term. There is none here; nor can there be. While immediacy of the evidence makes proof unnecessary, however, one may give an indirect indication of its validity by observing that the lack of any one of the senses deprives a man of all the knowledge that particular sense might have apprehended. A man born blind, for example, knows nothing of color, and no amount of teaching will help him in this regard; color for him is unimaginable and unthinkable, a clear indication that the materials of knowledge come only through the experience of the senses.

Besides this indirect indication of the validity of sense knowledge, it is possible to defend this validity positively by a direct analysis of sensation itself. St. Thomas makes such an analysis in the Summa theologiae in answer to the question: "Whether there is falsity in the senses?" He there states: "The affection of the sense is its sensation itself. Hence from the fact that sense reports as it is affected, it follows that we are not deceived in the judgment by which we judge that we experience sensation" (Summa theologiae 1a, 17.2 ad 1). When, therefore, one is aware of his senses reporting contact with an object, he can have infallible assurance that he is really sensing something, and sensing it as it is, no matter what, on further analysis, its nature might turn out to be. For it may be taken as certain that no legitimate distinction between appearance and reality can make whatever appears to be be itself unreal. If there is an appearance to the senses, there is a reality appearing; the alternative is to face the contradiction, that a sensation could terminate in nothing, and that nothing can appear. To sum up, if man senses, he senses something; and if he senses something, he must sense it as it is. The seeming alternative, that is, to sense nothing, is an absurdity; the only alternative is not to sense at all.

Validity of Intellection. There is no doubt, then, that all man's knowledge begins with the senses, but man is also clearly aware that it does not end there. His intellect is a different and higher power of knowledge that utilizes the content provided by the senses to expand and elaborate his knowledge into ideas, judgments, and reasoning processes. Analysis of his experience forces him to recognize intellectual knowledge as different and more perfect than sensory knowledge, although it does not force him to conclude that the intellect operates separately and in isolation from the senses. The person is a strict unity and so is human knowledge. Yet the component of knowledge supplied by the senses differs from that of the intellect. The knowledge of the senses is restricted to the external and sensible qualities of things, while intellectual knowledge grasps the essences, the intimate natures of things. One sees, for example, the color, shape, size, and position of a house, but it is only by intellectual knowledge that he begins to understand what a house is, that is, a structure used to shelter human living and working. In short, whereas the senses are concerned only with the sensible phenomena, the intellect penetrates to the nature, the very being of the object.

The analysis of knowledge, therefore, reveals that human knowledge exists on two distinct levels that complement and complete each other. In man they are bound together in such close unity that together they grasp the same object, an object that is at once sensible and intelligible. In this close association with the senses is to be placed the critical foundation of the validity of intellectual knowledge. This knowledge begins and derives from the content provided by the senses, without which the intellect would have no object, and therefore no operation.

Since the proper object of the intellect is being, the intellect manifests itself as a living relation to being, to the real. What man grasps intellectually is not the phenomena of things, but the determinations hidden under the phenomena, though manifested by them, and characterizing the essence of the thing. The validity of such intellectual apprehension has a parallel in the necessary validity of sensory apprehension. St. Thomas uses and applies the analogy when he answers the question: "Whether the intellect can be false?" He writes: "For, every faculty as such is per se directed to its proper object, and things of this kind are always the same. Hence so long as the faculty exists, its judgment concerning its own proper object does not fail. Hence as regards simple objects not subject to composite definitions we cannot be deceived unless we understand nothing whatever about them" (Summa theologiae 1a, 85.6). Just as color is necessarily perceived by sight, so being is necessarily understood by intelligence. The intellect knows the thing in its being, and it knows it as it is. Intellectual knowledge is valid in apprehension because the light of the intellect penetrates to the reality of the object and cannot avoid doing so.

Validity of Judgment. A more formidable problem arises concerning the validity of the judgment, since it is here that truth or falsity is properly found. Because it is in this intellectual act that the first indemonstrable principles are known, the judgment furnishes the basic foundation for the truths of every science and both wisdoms. Thus St. Thomas maintains that, in its origin, all knowledge consists in becoming aware of the first indemonstrable principles (De ver. 10.6). These principles are simply the primary mental assents at which the mind naturally and necessarily arrives in its inspection of reality, both in terms of the general modes of being common to everything and the special modes of being proper to the different kinds of things in man's experience. The judgments relating to the general modes of being concern the transcendentals; these are the origin of all the principles and conclusions of metaphysics. The judgments relating to the special modes of being concern the categories or various types of reality found concretized in things; these are the origin of all principles and conclusions of science (scientia). The ultimate test of the truth of any judgment, then, can only be the analytic resolution of that judgment back to first principles. For this reason St. Thomas can say: "There is never falsity in the intellect if resolution back to first principles be rightly carried out" (De ver. 1.12). The human intellect does not learn these principles, nor does it assume them; it arrives at them naturally, necessarily, and immediately upon knowing the terms that make them up. The mind thus attains truth and certitude by grasping first principles, and then proceeding from these to conclusions. This does not mean that from these principles all knowledge can be deduced, but only that before anything can be deduced, they must be admitted and applied.

All judgments take place as the result of a unifying mental process that adds, to a concept already possessed, some new characteristic. It is well to note that a judgment does not take place by comparing mentally two different concepts and seeing these as compatible or not. A judgment is an assent, a dynamic act of the mind that occurs after a reflection on a composite concept that itself results from a composite phantasm. The connection between the two elements, known simultaneously in the composite concept and seen as possible in the apprehension, is affirmed in the judgment, which is a dynamic statement of the conformity between mind and reality. This is, in turn, the known conformity of the bond between the elements of the composite concept in the mind and the make-up of the object in reality.

This analysis of the act of judgment is the very core of St. Thomas's critical theory and his solution to the problem of knowledge. Judgment is the touchstone of all truth, the bridge that closes the gap between mind and reality. Using it, man's intellect can penetrate the secrets of matter and unravel the mysteries of the universe. He can detect the order in the world and put order into his life and his relations with others. He can know the natural law and even the eternal law of God as the ultimate rule of his action. Thus the power of judgment leads him upward to the life of the spirit and ultimately to God Himself.

See Also: epistemology.

Bibliography: g. a. de brie, Bibliographia philosophica, 19341945 (Brussels 1950 ) 2:130165. v. j. bourke, Thomistic Bibliography, 19201940 (St. Louis 1945) 22162741. l. m. rÉgis, St. Thomas and Epistemology (Milwaukee, Wis. 1946); Epistemology, tr. i. c. byrne (New York 1959). w. o. martin, The Order and Integration of Knowledge (Ann Arbor, Mich. 1957). j. maritain, Distinguish to Unite; or, The Degrees of Knowledge, tr. g. b. phelan (New York 1959). r. houde and j. p. mullaly, eds., Philosophy of Knowledge (Philadelphia 1960). g. van riet, L'Épistémologie thomiste (Louvain 1946). j. pÉghaire, Regards sur le connaître (Montreal 1949).

[g. c. reilly]


views updated Jun 11 2018


The concept of knowledge in Islam is generally designated by two Arabic terms that have overlapping meanings but different connotations, ˓ilm and ma˓rifa. ˓Ilm designates knowledge, the "science or study of" a field such as the Qur˒an, prophetic traditions (hadith), grammar, dialectical theology (kalam), and astronomy. It also denotes the knowledge of God in particular. Ma˓rifa acquired two different meanings, secular knowledge on the one hand and gnosticism (secret knowledge) on the other. This latter sense was particularly characteristic of the language of tasawwuf (Sufism). The mystical Islamic vision of knowledge expresses the celebrated Arabic proverb that "He who knows [has the gnosis of] his soul also knows [has the gnosis of] his God."

Other terms give the concept of knowledge in Islam an even richer complexity of breadth and depth. For example, shi˓r also translates as knowledge, but usually in the special sense of learning or knowing something intuitively. One of the primary meanings of shi˓r is "poetry." Fiqh means to understand or comprehend something, to have knowledge of something, particularly legal knowledge. The chief antonym or opposite of ˓ilm is jahl, which connotes ignorance, but also includes the concepts of boorishness and cultural crudeness. Islam teaches that the time before the revelation of the Qur˒an was a dark age of ignorance of knowledge of God. This era is called the Jahiliyya.

The Traditional Sense of Knowledge

The key sense of knowledge, in both Persian and Arabic, then, is the one attributed to ˓ilm. This term is related to the Persian danish, the Latin scientia, and the Greek episteme. In ordinary English, this term refers to the concept of scientific knowledge. By adopting this sense of knowledge for the sciences, the subsequent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim epistemologies formulated natural science as having two major constituents: (external) sense experience and analytic conception. According to this epistemology, external senses provide the knowledge of the surface of bodies. Both sense data and analytical (mathematical and logical) axioms are constituents of an axiomatic system, which provided the genesis of contemporary notion of a "model." Such a system uses scientific laws to both explain and predict nature.

The nonobservational dimension of scientific knowledge employs concepts in a syntax depicting logical and mathematical axioms of the model used in scientific theory. Here, knowledge is achieved primarily by carrying out an analysis of concepts and making deductions of conclusions from premises according to valid rules of logic, thus preserving a correspondence of truth that continues, unbroken, from the premises to conclusion. Muslims contributed to the development of logic through the discussion of temporal modalities, including the modalities of necessity, impossibility, and contingency. Within these discussions, these modalities, along with temporal indexes, were relevant in evaluating the truth value of statements.

A small number of Muslims, such as Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), as well as a minority of European thinkers, such as René Descartes, followed the views of ancient Greek skeptics, who held that neither perception nor analysis provides certainty. In spite of such occasional skepticism, philosophers subsequent to Aristotle, including Muslims as well as Jews and Christians, followed Aristotle's classification of scientific knowledge into three kinds: theoretical (in which the subject-matter of knowledge is not related to the inquirer), practical (where the inquirer is involved in the inquiry), and productive (which aims to produce useful entities).

Whereas, in Aristotelian philosophy, there are three categories of scientific knowledge, there are five kinds of theoretical inquiries, or sciences. First, are the dialectical religious sciences, such as kalam (speculative theology) and fiqh (disciplined interpretation of the sources of the sacred law). Next is philosophy, understood as a study of being and a study of causes. Here subjects of inquiry are unrelated to physical bodies (things) in definition or examples. The next type of speculative inquiry is analysis, to which belong the disciplines of mathematics, logic, and music. Here the subjects of inquiry are not related by definition, but are conceptually related to physical bodies. Finally there are the natural sciences, such as physics proper, physics of motion, astronomy, meteorology, zoology, botany, and psychology. Here, both definitions and examples are related to bodies. Finally, there are the practical sciences, which include public management (with religious laws and politics as subdisciplines), and household management. Subdisciplines of the latter include the science of the household, civics, which concerns one's duty as a citizen, the science of the self, which includes the various senses, and the science of the soul.

Among all of the aforementioned sciences, the subdiscipline of practical science known as the science of the soul is most relevant to epistemology. Like those of its Western counterparts, Islamic epistemologies follow Aristotle's tripartite doctrine of the classification of the souls into vegetative, animal, and rational types. Two kinds of intelligence, the passive and the active, mark the rational soul. The passive intellect abstracts conceptual features from the sensible, such as the symmetry between two figures; whereas the active reason receives by intuition the first principles of science. Muslim philosophers and theologians, like other medieval monotheistic theologies, added a religious, spiritual dimension to the active intelligence.

Al-˓aql (reason, intellect) has many functions in Islamic thought. In theology and law it is usually contrasted with tradition (naql or sam˓). While a majority of epistemologies of physical sciences follow the Aristotelian model, in the mystical as well as the post–Ibn Sina (Avicenna, b. 980, d. 1037) traditions, Muslims go beyond the peripatetic (that is to say, Aristotelian) model. For example, the Muslim instrumental theory of knowledge emphasizes the intentional, pragmatic, practical, and normative senses of knowledge. Moreover, it also encompasses an account of knowledge as wisdom, which includes but goes beyond discursive science by seeking norms, and thus partakes of the search for the secret of the good life. For the religious devotee, the best life is lived in imitation of the lives of the prophets, like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and expressed by service to humanity in imitation of Imam Husayn and ˓Isa (Jesus).

Three Senses of "Imagination" and a Creative Vision of Knowledge

Traditional epistemology divides the senses into the five external senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing), and a set of "internal senses," such as memory. Muslims extend the Greek theories of internal sense, which included common sense and the notion of memory as "sense imagery," into refined accounts of "intentional" memory and three special senses of imagination. In this usage, a psychological notion is "intentional" if it fails the so-called rule of extensionality. This rule can be exemplified in the following way. Suppose "John thinks he loves Mary" and "Mary is a spy"; it does not follow that "John thinks that he loves a spy." A number of philosophers hold that intentional notions cannot be explained by a materialistic, reductionist psychology. Because Muslim philosophical psychology followed an experiential or a phenomenological method, it did not use materialistic causes to explain a number of psychological notions.

In this light, new Muslim theories of imagination extended beyond the passive, reproductive type to embrace creative and productive types of images experienced, in both waking and dream states, variously characterizing it as: (a) imagination providing cognitively significant icons, (b) imagination providing sacred and mystical insights, and finally (c) an intentional sense of imagination with pragmatic and prehensive significances (when the meaning of an event is different for every person, i.e., love).

The first sense of iconic imagination points to the creative role assigned to visions and dreams, and follows an earlier tradition, exemplified in the Hebrew Bible. It is the sense of Joseph's celebrated interpretation of the pharaoh's dream, where a specific dream has a social significance. The cognitive import of this interpretation points to an iconic imagery through a natural revelation. This medium (the dream) contains insights about future events, mediated by an agent, the pharaoh in this case, who is not a prophet; instead, he or she is a spokesperson who can be understood in the role of the religious archetype of the messenger. Consequently, in addition to its psychological and therapeutic significance, the iconography of mystical and religious symbolism and rituals contains cognitive information about the actual world.

The most celebrated of these kinds of symbolism is the light motif, employed by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, all three of whom use light to symbolize self-realization and mystical progress. Plotinus takes this symbolism the furthest, using an allegorical or symbolic type of theology to express the emanation of the word from the One (which is supra-being) in the language of illumination (he also uses the analogies of a fountain of water and the reflection in the mirror). In a similar vein, the Qur˒an depicts God as the Light of the Heavens and the earth. Following from this, the illumination philosophy of Suhrawardi depicts the ultimate being (God) as the Light of Lights, with the rest of the world being its emanation. Other symbolism includes drowning in the water (recalling the fish as a symbol of Christ in Christian iconography), and the flight of the birds toward the heavens. In Islamic carpets, four-footed animals depict the body, the tree symbolizes the various phases of life-experience, and a bird depicts the soul. Other ways of symbolically depicting the mystical way of self-realization include parables that tell of awakening (attaining puberty) and stories of birds caught by hunters.

These examples illustrate various different dimensions of the Islamic notion of knowledge. To begin with, the primary sense of knowledge used in science is to explain experience and to predict the future, in order to produce a technology that will control nature for useful projects. In contrast, the aim of the present iconographically related experience transforms a person through dealienation—through the recognition that an individual participates in a larger social or spiritual context. Consider the case of a young person who has fallen in love. This person begins to comprehend her or his transformation from a self-involved individual to an entity who is part of a union with a partner in the context of love, marriage, and family. To the members of such a couple, their child is a living testimony to their intended union through marriage.

In Islam, revelation and sacred insights are provided to a privileged few, such as the prophets, imams, mystics, and Ayatollah-jurists. These images imparted are not of particular objects, which are available through the senses, but of societal and meta-legal dictums, from the Qur˒an and other sources, delineating religious social law (shari˓a) and formal jurisprudence. It is the third sense of imagination, as an intentional sense of imagination with pragmatic and prehensive significances, that signals a radical departure of Islamic epistemology from the confines of mainstream, realistic, discursive epistemology. A paradigmatic case of this type of epistemology is the notion of prehensive imagination (wahm), as illustrated by the example of a sheep running away from a wolf, providing a symbolic representation of apprehension (realization) of fear.

Muslim philosophers took the Aristotelian notion of active reason, extended it, and incorporated it into their mystical framework. They began with the assumption that the distinguishing faculties of the human soul are passive and active faculties of reason. Passive reason expresses the soul's ability to abstract non-sensible relations from experience, for example, in observing the topological symmetry between two figures. In such an operation, the mind does not create a new datum in the actual world, but has the ability to abstract relations of particulars observed by the senses. A majority of the Muslim philosophers who followed Aristotle did not share the Platonic view that interpreted mathematical and other forms as suprasensible realities independent of human minds. A few philosophers, such as Shihab ad-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1234) and Mir Damad (d. 1631) adopted the realist ontology in taking mathematics to be re-cognition of actual entities and not intellectual abstraction from particulars. Most Muslim philosophers postulated that, unlike passive intellect, active intelligence demonstrates an ability to intuit the first principles of science, such as the premises of Euclidean geometry. They held that, as these axioms are derived by deduction, we can derive knowledge of arithmetic, various types of geometries, and other analytical sciences, which provide the frameworks that are used in the empirical sciences.

Theological Knowledge as an Activity

The celebrated theologian Abu Hamid Ghazali (1058–1111) proffered that philosophy should begin with an inquiry into how creatures should imitate the Divine will in the act of creation. This "vector" of will to life-reality is analogous to the theoretical axiom of the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion, according to which believers, by positive living—for example, being engaged in farming, begetting children, developing cities, and creating social order—adopt a perspective that denies the evil force (Ahriman). Evil here is understood as the denial of life and the privation of all existence.

In this tenor, Ghazali outlined a list of mystical virtues, which are both epistemic and ethical. They include archetypal recall (memory), exuberance, intimacy, and a taste for life. Such a doctrine moves ontology from an investigation of substances to the pursuit of the good will. Ghazali posits that facts and values are interrelated. His thought also upholds an instrumental theory of knowledge, rejecting the so-called spectator theory, which places the mind of the agent outside of the object of knowledge. In contrast, Ghazali's instrumental theory of knowledge mixes ethics with a practical sense of knowledge.

Up to the last thirty years of the twentieth century, most investigators approached Islamic philosophy from the standpoint of Aristotlian thought. This approach imposed a limited rendering of Islamic epistemology in the peripatetic, static context of the discursive knowledge of external senses and axiomatic system. However, to take account of some of the refinements of Muslim epistemologies, it is necessary to use the frameworks of post-peripatetic Western philosophers. Recent Muslim investigators such as Nader El-Bizri use the conceptual frameworks of philosophers such as Gottfried von Leibniz (1646–1716), who held the nexus of metaphysics is monads as energy; Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), who began his metaphysics by the temporal concept of "being-in-the world"; Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), who proffered a process instead of a substance-event metaphysics); and Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970), who clarified the notion of "scientific model."

Mystical Knowledge as an Authentic Hermeneutic Dealienation

It is revealing that Ibn Sina, who was one of the most significant Muslim philosophers, wrote an Arabic version of Plato's Symposium, wherein he shared with the Greek philosopher the vision that love is the salvation of the human soul. For Plato, the highest knowledge is a confrontation with the Absolute Good, a stance that is analogous to the notion of Shahada (being an authentic witness to God's gifts—unique existence, guidance, and creation) as presented in Islamic mystical theology. In addition, Ibn Sina's version shares with Plotinus's vision a view of the mystical journey as a return to the origin and the ground of all existence.

For Ibn Sina, three main phases of this journey are alienation, love, and union. In the first phase, a person individuates his or her personality by building a castle, a wall of privacy, that protects and distinguishes the person from others. Soon, this castle or wall of protection imprisons the person and alienates him or her from the rest of humanity and nature. In the next phase, by falling in love, a person transcends his or her egocentric perspective to form a relation of intimacy, leading to the opening up of an authentic encounter with others. This is a phase that is often depicted through the archetypal role of the beloved, who acts as a mediator figure, a logos, or through the role of a prophet, who links the alienated self to its source. Finally the last phase is a mystical union between the person, symbolized as a river that flows toward Divine-nature, which is the origin, arche, as well as the completion of the person. This union is often depicted as a drop of water joining a river that returns it to an ocean.

The process of self-enlightenment in Sufism points to two distinct but interrelated dimensions of knowledge that can be illustrated in the common pedagogy used to teach a foreign language. The teacher instructs the pupil to perform externally imposed tasks, such as memorizing a set of words, using verb-conjugation flashcards, practicing writing exercises, and repeating sentences in conversation courses. The pupil obtains a certain level of knowledge in vocabulary and rules of grammar. Having reached this stage, the pupil can now recognize the content of a conversation and a written French communication. In a similar sense, the more persons in love share experiences, like cooking and traveling together, visiting each others' parents, and working on common tasks, the more they "prehend" each other's personality and are able to make crucial decisions such as marriage.

This notion of "prehension," as used in the philosophy of Alfed North Whitehead, signifies an epistemic, non-conscious state of immediate-intimacy and intuition, is also expressed by the Arabic-Persian term, hal, which refers to the role of the mystical master in directing his disciple. For example, a person believing himself to be pious is directed to walk into a bazaar carrying bloody pig meat on his shoulder, which makes people lose their respect for him. After such an experience, he loses his pride and is able to reflect authentically on the ground of his soul. Such tasks lead to self-knowledge as well as to self-strength, as the disciple learns that his happiness should not depend on gaining the approval of the common people. In the Sufic tradition, knowledge is thus associated with goodness, as in becoming a better person, and in learning to live in harmony with nature. It is a process of dealienation, enabling people to cope with responsibilities outside of parental protection as well as with problems, such as aging, and fates like death. In addition, knowledge is explainable in both theoretical terms and through practical experiences, as well as by its psychosomatic features, such as habits and unconscious behaviors.

Philosophical Knowledge as an Immediate Encounter with "Being"

Ibn Sina and a number of his successors challenged the peripatetic model of knowledge by adopting the phenomenological method, in which ontology is not separated from epistemology. Here, philosophy begins with the world as it is revealed in experience. Accordingly, Ibn Sina, Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274), Mulla Sadra (b.1571–1640), and others replaced the substance-event language of ontology with an intentional phenomenology of the mind's direct encounter with "being" (wujud, hasti). Subsequent, ontology proceeds by an application of "being" to three modalities (impossibility, contingency, and necessity), which then results in impossible entities (such as a round square), necessary entities (namely the Necessary Existent), and contingent entities (such as an entity of humanity, a unicorn, or a chair).

In the next phase, the mind encounters the subject of being-in the world—experience. This entity is not a Cartesian substance, but rather a field of experience. It is similar to the phenomenal self, or the notion of "a transcendental unity of apperception," as it is termed in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). It is also analogous to Martin Heidegger's (1889–1976) notion of "dasein." Unlike Aristotle and, later, René Descartes, (1596–1650), Kant, David Hume (1711–1176), and Heidegger, as well as a number of other Western thinkers, reject the view that a human soul is a substance.

The third phase is an inquiry for the inner-essence (dhat) of the self. This notion differs from another sense of (common) essence (mahiyya) shared by other members of the same species. For example, it is common to say that an essence of a child's mother, like the essence of any human, is her possession of a rational soul; but for the child, there is another, existential sense of "essence" (expressed by the Arabic-Persian 'dhat'), which concerns the peculiar dependence of a specific child to a particular mother. In Persian mystical poetry, God, or one's mother, is depicted as "the existence of my existence," or "the cause of the actualization of my life." The mystics seek a connection with this sense of essence. The nature mystics add a last phase to this process, namely a search for a dealienation or the unity of existence (wahadt alwujud). Here we come back to the celebrated Arabic proverb, that "he who knows [gnosis] his self-soul, also knows [gnosis] his God."

In the primary sense of knowledge as "scientific inquiry," Muslims philosophers followed the Greek tradition as outlined by Aristotle. In addition to a few innovations in logic, such as temporal and modal types of logic, the Muslim contribution to epistemology is found in secondary senses of knowledge. These include a phenomenological intentionality, the development of the pragmatics of an instrumental theory of knowledge, creative theories of imagination, and iconography. The crown of Islamic epistemology, however, lies in a unique application of the notion of unity (tawhid), which integrates persons with God, or the ultimate being of philosophers. Similarly, Judaism and Christianity seek an authentic encounter with the Divine, but Islamic mysticism seeks an identity beyond any duality. It follows the theme that the soul seeks no "otherness" from the One.

See alsoGhazali, al- ; Ibn Sina ; Mulla Sadra ; Tasawwuf ; Theology ; Tusi, Nasir al-Din .


Corbin, Henry. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn˓Arabi. Translated by R. Manheim. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Ha˒iri, Mehdi. The Principle of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Morewedge, Parviz. The Mystical Philosophy of Avicenna. Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Institute of Advanced Theology of Bard College, 2002.

Rahman, Fazlur. Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Rosenthal, Franz. Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam. Leiden: Brill, 1970.

Parviz Morewedge


views updated May 29 2018

233. Knowledge

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 .


views updated May 11 2018

Knowledge. A valued, but somewhat ambiguous, human competence in most religions. Gnosis (Gk., ‘knowledge’) as insight into the deepest mysteries flourished in the Hellenistic world, leading to both mystery religions (with initiates alone gaining access to healing or saving knowledge) and to gnostic religions. Christian history unfolds a tension between fideism and the exploration of the universe as God's creation, out of which the natural sciences eventually emerged. In Islam, knowledge receives the highest endorsement (see ʿILM); yet even here, knowledge in contrast to behaviour in conformity with Qurʾān and sharīʿa is suspect.

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.


views updated May 29 2018

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.


views updated May 21 2018

knowledge †confession; fact of knowing, acquaintance. XIII. In earliest use north. (knaulage), later in gen. use knowleche, — lache; prob. f. knowledge vb. acknowledge, recognize (XIII), early ME. cnaw-, cnouleche :- OE. *cnāwlāċan (cnāwelǣċing is recorded), f. (ġe)cnāwan know + -lǣċan, f. lāc (see -LOCK).
Hence knowledg(e)able †(f. the vb.) recognizable XVII; (f. the sb.; orig. dial.) well informed XIX.


views updated Jun 11 2018

knowledge knowledge is power proverbial saying, late 16th century; originally from the English lawyer and courtier Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and echoing the biblical ‘a man of knowledge increaseth strength (Proverbs 24:5). (Compare money is power.)
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.