Research - Philosophy of Knowledge

Do you think you know what knowledge is? Think again!

A postmodern philosophical perspective on epistemology and the universe of knowledge

By Nils Randrup


For most people knowledge is a simple concept of what we know and are aware of and what we don’t. It is at the same time complex and mystical. The study of knowledge or epistemology has been debated throughout all ages by professionals such as philosophers, scientists, and psychologists. This paper includes a short overview and introduction to the key insights and models used to explain what knowledge is and how it is acquired. It presents the 3 worlds of knowledge as a conceptual point of entry into the study of knowledge. It then expands into a short presentation of the classes of knowledge; it explains knowledge as a belief system, and finally outlines the sources of knowledge.  As such it can be a helpful refresher of the fundamentals as well as a quick introduction and overview of what the study of knowledge is all about preceding a more profound study of epistemology.

Introduction to the concept of Knowledge

 “There are tacit and explicit knowledge” says young Bob. “NO” says old Doug, “You are quite wrong. The world of knowledge is much larger than that”. “But when we know something we either know something implicitly or explicitly, what more can there be?” says young Bob. Old Doug sighs and then exclaims “The eyes can only see so far. And right now you are looking at knowledge as an object, and not at what is further away”. "What is then the object of knowledge?" asks young Bob. "There is no object of knowledge," replies the old Doug, "To know is to be able to operate adequately in an individual or cooperative situation." "So which is more important, to know or to do?" asks young Bob. "All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing," replies Doug, and then continues, "Knowing is an effective action, that is, knowledge operate effectively in the domain of existence of all living creatures."[2] 

Isn’t the philosophy of knowledge wonderfully intriguing? Philosophers call the study of knowledge by the fancy word "epistemology" which is in its roots a Greek word for “Knowledge” + “ Logic”. It’s about what knowledge is and how it is acquired. This article is meant as a little inspirational contribution to help readers see beyond their current horizons, in case they are not so familiar with epistemology. Now back to the story …. So, where is Old Doug coming from? What does he see that young Bob does not?

3 Worlds of Knowledge

In order to understand knowledge on a conceptual level like Old Doug, the 3 Worlds concept is a useful place to start.

World 1 - Physical

This world is the physical universe that surrounds us. It consists of the actual truth and reality that we try to represent, such as energy, physics, and chemistry. While we exist in this world, we do not always perceive it and then represent it correctly.

World 2 – Perceptional

This world is the perceptional universe that is part of us. The world of our subjective personal perceptions, experiences, and cognition. It is what we think about the world as we try to map, represent, and anticipate or hypothesis in order to maintain our existence in an every changing place. Personal knowledge and memory form this world, which are based on self-regulation, cognition, consciousness, dispositions, and processes. Note that the concept of tacit and explicit knowledge is based entirely within this world.

World 3 – Artifacts

This world is the universe of artifacts created by us. The sum total of the “objective and tangible” knowledge and representations of the abstract products of the human mind, which is then stored in historical contents and contexts by us. It consists of such artifacts as books, tools, articles, models, libraries, computers, networks, posters, sculptures, signs and so forth. It is quite a diverse mixture. While knowledge may be created and produced by World 2 activities, its artifacts are stored in World 3, for example a claw-hammer, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and Godel's proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic.

For a philosopher the concept of tacit/explicit knowledge[4]  is useful to tie the concept of Knowledge down as done in behavioral sciences. The tacit/explicit epistemology is narrower and has a limited basis for understanding knowledge as compared to the 3 Worlds of Knowledge, which provides a broader epistemological foundation. There are various relationships between these three worlds:

·         The Physical World 1 drives and enables the Perceptional World 2 to exist, while the Perceptional World 2 tries to control and regulate the Physical World 1.

·         The Perceptional World 2 produces the Artifacts World 3, while Artifacts World 3 helps in the recall and the training/education/development/learning of Perceptional World 2.

·         Artifacts World 3 describes and predicts Physical World 1, while Physical World 1 is the inferred logic of Artifacts World 3.

·         Perceptional World 2 control the relationship between Physical World 1 and Artifacts World 3. Since world 2 is composed of people, we can use our senses to cut across boundaries and observe and test the exchanges and relationships of worlds 1 and 2.

Thus, the roots of the 3 World concept is that:

“Knowledge surrounds us (world 1), becomes a part of us (world 2), and is created by us (world 3).”

In this framework there are two different senses of knowledge or thought:

·         Knowledge in the subjective sense, consisting of a state of mind with a disposition to behave or to react [cognition].

·         Knowledge in an objective sense, consisting of the expression of problems, theories, and arguments.

While the first is personal, the second is totally independent of anybody's claim to know — it is knowledge without a knowing subject.

Classes of Knowledge

Within the perceptional “world”, epistemology is the discipline of logical knowledge. However, there exist other classes of knowledge[5] besides what is generated as a result of scientific inquiry. The classical classes of knowledge include:

·         Craft knowledge (Tehne) – Concerning production (not action). Every craft is concerned with producing a work product, something coming to be.

·         Scientific knowledge (Episteme) – What is necessary and known, eternal, ingenerable & indestructible.

·         Intelligence (Phronesis) – A capability of rational thinking. Practical Concerning living well;

·         Understanding (Nous) – Ability to grasp first principles, having an intellect.

·         Wisdom (Sophia) – reasoning concerning universal truths, understanding plus scientific knowledge, “theoretical” wisdom, ”Booksmartness”

·         Action (Praxis) - thoughtful, practical doing, practical “wisdom”

Knowledge as beliefs

When discussing the nature of knowledge within the perception world 2, the modernists and postmodernists have a different perspective on what beliefs are.

Belief as Truth

“Modern” philosophers[6] defines knowledge as a “justified true belief"[7] or in short a “truth”. The definition consists of 3 “conditions” and when they are met, one knows something is true. The starting point is than knowledge starts as a “statement”, and that statement resides in a person or individual. A person has to believe that a statement is true, the statement needs to be in fact true, and the belief must be justified before she can truly say that she knows something to be true. The belief exist in the perception world 2, whereas what is in fact true belongs to the physical world  2. A justification means that something is a warranted assumption, that there is a logical rule which makes the statement correct and that there are “proof” that the rule is a solid rule. For a modernist there is such a thing as Absolut knowledge and truths. And the 3 Worlds of Knowledge originates from a Modernistic perspective of knowledge.

Belief as Perceptions

In contrast postmodern philosophers study of knowledge define knowledge more in terms of something (a condition) that can be perceived, and acknowledge that perceptions can change, depending on us, on time and on our perspective or lenses we use to perceive. Therefore nothing can be known to be certain, and we have to have a specific, skeptical attitude towards certainty, and a relative view of belief and knowledge. Postmodernists see truth as much more fluid and in the eyes of the beholder. There is in essence no absolute knowledge, only relative knowledge. Postmodernists also state that everything exist and is known already, and so when we talk about inventing new knowledge, this knowledge is based on knowledge we already have. So nothing is really “new”.

Sources of knowledge

Where does our knowledge come from? Of course, we learn a lot of things from artifacts (books, from the media, and from other people) but how has knowledge come about?

Scientific Knowledge

Within the academic world, the primary source of knowledge is derived from Science. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable and measurable evidence, and subject to specific principles of logic, reasoning and experimentation. The scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. There are two competing traditions within science concerning the ultimate source of our knowledge: empiricism and rationalism.


Empiricists hold that all of our knowledge is ultimately derived from our senses or our experiences. They therefore deny the existence of innate knowledge, i.e. knowledge that we possess from birth. Empiricism fits well with the scientific world-view that places an emphasis on experimentation and observation. It struggles, however, to account for certain types of knowledge, e.g. knowledge of pure mathematics or ethics.


Rationalists hold that at least some of our knowledge is derived from reason alone, and that reason plays an important role in the acquisition of all of our knowledge. There is clearly a limit to what we can learn through abstract thought, but the rationalist’s claim is that reason play a role in observation, and so that the mind is more fundamental than the senses in the process of knowledge-acquisition.

5 sources of knowledge

Knowledge is very closely related to what we can perceive or register, our mental capacity to perceive and process tangible and intangibles. It is furthermore closely related to terminology and language which is used to communicate knowledge by. The origins of knowledge can be classified in terms of its sources[8]:

·         Perception — that which can be perceived through the experiences of the senses. The view that experience is the primary source of knowledge is called empiricism.

·         Reason — Reason can be considered a source of knowledge, either by deducing truths from existing knowledge, or by learning things a priori, discovering necessary truths (such as mathematical truths) through pure reason. The view that reason is the primary source of knowledge is called rationalism

·         Introspection — Knowledge of one’s self that can be found through internal self-evaluation. This is generally considered to be a sort of perception. (For example, I know I am hungry or tired.)

·         Memory — Memory is the storage of knowledge that was learned in the past — whether it be past events or current information. Memory and its development is the root of historicism.

·         Testimony — Testimony relies on others to acquire knowledge and communicate it to us. Some deny that testimony can be a source of knowledge, and insist that beliefs gained through testimony must be verified in order to be knowledge.

Sub-conscious and Intuitive knowledge

Let’s look at the source of knowledge from the other end of the scale. Knowledge is NOT just derived from scientific inquiry through empirical or rational study. And it is not limited by our conscious awareness. The subconscious[9] is considered the part of consciousness that is not currently in focal awareness. Underneath the layers of critical-thought functions of the conscious mind lay a powerful awareness that he called the subconscious mind. Carl Jung said that there is a limit to what can be held in conscious focal awareness, an alternative storehouse of one's knowledge and prior experience is needed, and this is also referred to as the sub-consciousness.

An example of our sub-conscious knowledge is Intuition. Intuition is the ability to acquire partial knowledge without inference or the use of reason. An individual may "know" about a situation but be unable to explain the process that led to their knowledge, with no observations, logic or reason as the origin of the knowledge. Classical knowledge is derived from consciousness or awareness. Un-conscious knowledge is also knowledge which resides somewhere within us, whether it is in our brain, our DNA or elsewhere. Unconscious knowledge can – like sub-conscious knowledge - “surface” and become conscious through manifestations or experiences such as intuition, dreams, hallucinations, hypnosis, meditation and similar. Or it can stay unconscious and manifest itself as automatic behavior or reactions we are not conscious about, or perhaps even stay internal and never “surface”. Therefore some un-conscious knowledge can surface and be observed and studied, but scientific inquiry does not (yet) give us access to more than a partial study of un-conscious or sub-conscious knowledge. But it is there, it exist. It is just less accessible. The unconscious mind has a will and purpose of its own that cannot be known to the conscious mind (hence the term "unconscious") and is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression[10]

Philosophy of Knowledge

Knowledge is traditionally studied from the epistemological perspectivewhich focus on describing knowledge’s nature, sources and limits, and deal with distinguishing justified belief from opinion. Just because you have an opinion about something does not mean that your opinion is justified. Or in other words just because you think you know does not mean that you actually know or that your knowledge is justified. Your knowledge is worth more if its justified that if it is “just” an opinion. However, opinions can be the initiator of scientific study, and so lead to justified knowledge. So opinions are considered truths if they can be justified. However, there can exist many truths and when there are mutually exclusive we then have a conflict of knowledge and a scientifical dilemma.


In addition, knowledge can be discussed from other perspectives in terms of what knowledge actually is (metaphysics) as well as why we want to know and the values of knowledge (Axiology). So what we know in a philosophical sense is not just restricted to the study of knowledge but also the study of what the nature of knowledge is and the study of our value systems. So from a philosophical perspective, knowledge is a larger universe as outlined in the “Facets of Philosophy” model which basically states that knowledge has 3 areas of study; What we know, how we know it, and why we know:


According to the classification of philosophy by the Facets model, Philosophy is the study of reality (metaphysics), knowledge (epistemology) and value (Axiology). Metaphysics explains the nature of reality through study of what is and the nature of being (Ontology), what the meaning of life is (teleology), and what the nature and origin of the cosmos/universe is (Cosmology/Natural Theology). Epistemology explains what the nature of knowledge is and how we come to know through “scientific” inquiry based on observations and factual data, (Phenomenology/Empiricism), logical thinking (Rationalism), background knowledge and historical/evolutionary perspectives (Historicism) as well as information about motives (goals, values and consequences) for both stakeholders and the object of the study (Pragmatism) . Axiology explains what is of value and values we should live by through the study of what is good and evil, right and wrong (Ethics), power and how we should live together (Sociology/Politology), and what art, beauty, and good taste is (Aesthetics)[11].  So according to philosophers, knowledge can be described as a paradigm of knowledge. It is build with logic and language, and include a metaphysical, epistemological and axiological perspectives.



And to round this article out in a truly philosophical way, let’s see what the postmodernists can contribute with to the discussion of knowledge and life:

 “We - the scientists - stand on the back of each other, and where one leaves the torch, the next will pick it up, a run the next lap. But then the guy in the speaker box looks down at the race from above and tells the crowd through the loudspeaker: “Our guys are now running in circles and will probably do that for ever. Let’s all go to lunch instead at the Beachcomber Café, and watch the dolphins play in the emerald blue waters of Laguna Beach”.

 “Old Doug laughs and young Bob sighs. Old Doug is familiar with Popper’s 3 Worlds but young Bob is only familiar with Polany’s Tacit/Explicit concept. BUT, now young Bob knows as much as old Doug and will eventually be able to become wiser than old Doug. And as time is seeping through the hour glass of life, it will soon be young Bob who laughs and Old Doug who does his last Sigh ….”.

From here on out it can only get better or worse depending on your perspective.

Let’s throw knowledge out the door and play with the pieces.

So now you know what you know and that was that.



References, Jorge Cham 2008

3 World Concept originates back to Karl Popper. For reference see e.g. Maturana, H.R., and F.J. Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA, 1998.

Michael Polanyi's concept of tacit and explicit knowledge. For reference see e.g. Michael PolanyiThe logic of Tacit inference” in Philosophy / Volume41 / Issue 155 / January 1966, pp 1 – 18

Aristotelan definition of knowledge

Modern as in modernistic, based on Plato’s definition (e.g. in “Theaetetus”).

 Steup, Matthias, "Epistemology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014), “The Sources of Knowledge” Robert Audi, Honderich 1995, The philosophical index e.a.

The word "subconscious" represents an anglicized version of the French “subconscient” as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet (1859-1947)

 Philosophy of Collaboration, Randrup/Briggs/Druckenmiller 2016

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