Toward a Big Theory of Knowledge

Let's spark a new view of knowledge in the 21st century.

Posted Jan 05, 2018

I believe the time is right for sparking a new approach toward developing a Theory Of Knowledge. I think the desire for this can be justified by just looking around. Lots of evidence points to the fact that our deep knowledge systems—what humans understand to be true and good—are getting fuzzier and more chaotic every day.  

Let us start by getting clear about what is meant by a Theory Of Knowledge (TOK; Note, I capitalize the “O” here to contrast it with “ToK”, which stands for the Tree of Knowledge System). Traditionally, theories of knowledge emphasize one of two large components. (For a brief overview of knowledge in general, see here). The first and most common meaning of TOK is the “epistemological” meaning. This refers to the conception that “knowledge” should be conceptualized as “justified true beliefs” (JTB). That is, beliefs that were both true and justified were considered as knowledge. For many, many years, this was considered a very strong position. But, as philosophers know, an analysis by Gettier, showed why traditional JTB frames did not always hold. Although I agree that the work by Gettier and others was successful in weakening the JTB approach, it still remains the case that we do well to consider knowledge as having these three components, that is, knowledge is made up of (1) the truth (the actual state of affairs); (2) beliefs (which correspond or represent the state of affairs) and (3) justification, which refers to the legitimacy, depth, logic, coherence, sophistication of the beliefs and the relationship between them and the truth (i.e., was the individual justified in forming the beliefs about the true state of affairs).

The second meaning or component of a (big) TOK refers to the metaphysical and ontological meaning. This refers to one’s map or beliefs or claims about the “Beingness” of the universe. It is the question of what is the “Truth” of the universe and it also must deal with the question of how we humans (or any knower in general) comes to know about the truth of the universe. The field of Big History is a good example of a big picture view of the universe that offers an ontology of the universe as existing on the dimensions of time and complexity. It is worth noting that this effort was spearheaded by a historian and not a philosopher.

So, according to this breakdown, to achieve a successful big TOK, we need to consider two broad issues. One issue lines up the traditional emphases in epistemology (i.e., how we know; justifiable knowledge), and the second the nature of “Reality” or “Beingness,” which lines up with metaphysics and ontology. Given this frame, it follows that a complete and completely true TOK would be a system of belief that is completely justified in its map of all “Beingness” (i.e., the entire universe of existence). When we put it this way, we can see that this is just a fantasy. Given the vast vastness of the universe, no human will ever have complete knowledge of it. But this tells us what the ingredients are made up of; and I do believe we can move toward better and better TOKs. This fact is captured in a saying by my colleague Dr. Craig Shealy, which is that “We are all full of shit, but just to different degrees and different degrees of awareness”. By working together we can be “less full of shit” and more aware of what is bullshit and what we cling to out of needs and our own limitations as humans. 

The famous (and rebellious) physicist David Bohm developed a map of the universe that has much overlap with this framing in his 1980 book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, where he makes a distinction between the “explicate order,” which is everyday common sense, and the “implicate order,” which is the “true state of Beingness.” He first stated that we (those in science and philosophy and the academy at large) are completely lacking an adequate worldview, but he argued that it is necessary if we ever are to try and approach an adequate picture of the implicate order (i.e., stripping ourselves of our biases and distortions and seeing the universe for what it is to the best of our human ability). I think it is worth noting here that Buddhism, too, makes a similar distinction, when it emphasizes the difference between “conventional reality” and “emptiness.” 

For the purposes of framing my hope and vision in this blog, I want to bring the discussion to a head by pointing out that, in the 20th century, philosophers largely gave up the task of developing a full-scale TOK. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the single biggest is the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Knowing about Wittgenstein is a good starting point for launching this mission. He was not a fan of large-scale TOKs; it is one thing that is shared across his different positions on philosophy. As philosophers know, Wittgenstein had two main phases, early and late. His early work focused on the problem of truth in language. He argued that we should think language as corresponding to a “picture” of reality (what was called his “picture theory of meaning”). He thought the job of philosophy was to determine if people were making sense by examining the logical and corresponding relations between statements of fact. His book, Tractatus (1921), was hugely influential. And it set the stage the Vienna circle and their “logical empiricist” approach, in which the science is about statements that are logically consistent and empirically true.

Later in his life, Wittgenstein changed his mind regarding the nature of language and truth. Instead of thinking that language either conveyed sense or nonsense as his early work suggested, he came to see language as being much more practical, context-dependent, and worked very much like a tool to get things done. His later work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), details his argument that we should think about knowledge systems as “language games.” This was not meant to be flippant but rather emphasized that language emerged in an embedded social, historical, ecological context, and people generate language as tools to operate in the world toward goals. All of these factors were akin to shared rules of a game that the participants understood when they were “speaking each other’s language.” This philosophy of language shifted from the nature of knowledge to becoming much more context-dependent and framed by the intersubjective meanings of the actors.

I have briefly reviewed Wittgenstein’s thinking here for a couple of reasons. First, I want to point out that Wittgenstein’s thought has been hugely influential. His rejection of even possibly developing a large-scale, workable TOK is reflective of the zeitgeist in philosophy in the 20th century. That is, very few philosophers have been advocating for a grand vision of philosophy that seeks a complete TOK. It is seen by many now as a fool’s errand.

It is also the case that Wittgenstein straddled and indeed directly contributed to the split in our approaches to epistemology and the nature of truth; that is the split between modernism and post-modernism. Early Wittgenstein represents a hyper-modernist view of truth and the Enlightenment dream (which gets realized in the Vienna Circle and logical positivism). Later Wittgenstein rejects this and his concept of language games, along with Kuhn’s later work with the concept of paradigms, plays a significant role in justifying the move toward a more post-modern conception of truth, one that gets away from objective accuracy, and more into pragmatic, contextual, intersubjective and non-absolutist claims.

The framework I have developed (see here, here, and here)  frame inverts Wittgenstein on all three accounts. First, it embraces the challenge of developing an authentic, Big, workable TOK, one that tackles epistemology, metaphysics and ontology, and scientific BIG “E” empirical knowledge and phenomenological small “e” knowledge, all in one fell swoop. This is something he thought would have been absurd on its face.

Second, as I wrote in A New Unified Theory of Psychology, the system represents a “post-postmodern grand meta-narrative” that includes “foundationalist” truth claims. How does it accomplish this? I argue that in 1997, I made two separate “discoveries” that turn out to correspond directly to early and late Wittgenstein. It turns out I went the other direction, however, such that my first discovery was aligned with later W, and my second with early W.

I stumbled on the Justification Hypothesis in the spring of 1997. The JH does a number of things, including offering up a new map of human consciousness, dividing it up into the experiential, private narrator and public domains, with filters that take place in between.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Crucial to the JH, is the notion of justification systems, sometimes referred to as “Justification Systems Theory” (JUST). JUST sees people as using language as a tool to coordinate and legitimize actions and linguistic knowledge systems are held together by shared processes of justification. In other words, JUST corresponds directly to Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games."

Four months after playing around with JH, a new image of reality popped out of my head. I was, in some ways, “factoring out” human language games (justification systems) and seeing was left behind. What was left behind was the picture of the universe offered by the Tree of Knowledge System. It is a picture theory of reality that corresponds closely to the implications of early W’s work. This is seen in how the Vienna Circle tried to develop a “unified” view of science (see, e.g., Carnap’s work in 1934 on the possibility of a unified picture of science). More recently, a softer version of this vision was spelled out by E.O. Wilson (1998), in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

So, I want to welcome you to consider the idea that, if we can allow ourselves to dream, perhaps a movement can be sparked that historians will come to look back on as being the seeds that characterized how the 21st Century came to see human knowledge in a different, post-Wittgenstein light. That is, let’s do what we can to have the 21st Century be a place in which big TOK’s flourish and provide worldviews that foster human thriving.