Understanding Human Knowledge

Part 2: A review of the concepts that help us understand human knowledge.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

This blog series maps out the key elements of human knowledge to help folks make better sense of the world. Part I introduced the idea of dividing knowledge up into the domains of the objective, subjective, and intersubjective. This essay advances the discussion by introducing some key philosophical terms, and then moves to the Integral Theorist Ken Wilber’s insights on dividing how we know things into four different "quadrants."

Although different scholars offer slightly different variations on the branches of philosophy, virtually all summaries of philosophy include the following: 1) metaphysics, 2) epistemology, 3) ethics, and 4) aesthetics. Some philosophers add logic, whereas others add political philosophy, but for our purposes, these four branches suffice.

To frame them in fairly common sense terms, it is helpful to return to a long-standing frame in philosophy that dates back at least to Plato. This is the "tripartite vision" of the ultimate nature of reality as consisting of the true, the good, and the beautiful. We can link these three ultimate concerns with the four branches of philosophy. The philosophy of ethics aligns with questions pertaining to “the good,” whereas aesthetics aligns with questions of beauty.

We will return to questions of goodness and beauty. Our focus here is more on the concept of truth, and so we will explore what is meant by "epistemology" and "metaphysics" in this blog and the next.

Metaphysics is one of the most complicated and potentially misunderstood words in the English language. I know that I did not have a good conception of metaphysics until about 6 or 7 years ago. Historically, the concept comes from Aristotle’s work, and it refers to that which is beyond or above physics (i.e., the material world).

Metaphysics refers to the first principles in philosophy, as well as the concepts and categories one uses to divide up the world. It also includes how we think about the ultimate nature of reality, which corresponds to another important word in philosophy, "ontology," which is concerned with the nature of beingness or what is real. In their introduction to metaphysics, Koons and Pickavance (2014) describe the concept as relating to:

[T]he fundamental structure of reality as a whole. How do things fit together in the world? Plato describes this task of philosophy as “carving nature at the joints,” comparing metaphysics to a skillful and knowledgeable act of dissection. Here are four relations that seem to be among the fundamental relations of this worldly structure: the relation between things and their properties, between wholes and parts, between causes and effects, and things related to each other in space and in time.

Outside of academic settings, metaphysics sometimes carries a meaning associated with New Age, mystical, or "alternative" ways of thinking. The term rarely shows up in psychology, and many scientifically oriented folks hate the term. For example, in this interview I had with the complexity scientist Jim Rutt, he stated that when someone says metaphysics, “he reaches for his gun.” A similar kind of dynamic emerged in a recent interview I had with Dr. Jack Lyons on Unbreaking Science, who also had a negative reaction to metaphysics.

However, as the philosopher Lawrence Cahoone shows in The Orders of Nature, we need metaphysics to make sense out of what science says is true about the world. We will come back to the relationship between science and metaphysics in a future essay in this series. For now, let us turn to the other key concept pertaining to the truth in philosophy, which is epistemology.

Epistemology refers to how one knows what one knows and the methods and processes by which that knowledge is deemed justifiable. Sometimes epistemology is characterized as a “theory of knowledge” in that it explores how we determine what constitutes authentic knowledge (see, for example, this Great Course called Theories of Knowledge). One can argue that in Western thought, epistemology founded by Socrates, who was a master at deconstructing people’s assertions and demonstrated that much of what people believed they knew to be the case was a function of subjective bias and tradition rather than a logical analysis that resulted in certain knowledge. Indeed, one way to think about epistemology is to think of it as the process by which we separate true or accurate claims from BS (for more on this, see this blog on BS and the nature of knowledge).

The objective, subjective, and intersubjective distinctions we brought up in Part I connect to epistemology because they can be thought of as the ways in which knowledge is achieved. For example, science achieves knowledge (or claims to) via "objective" means and offers truth claims that are presumably independent of specific biases or subjective perspectives. Intersubjective views of knowledge emphasize that the way we know is tied up in our social world and social discourse and claims. And, of course, subjective refers to what we see, feel, and think from our own point of view. 

Via his quadrants, Ken Wilber offers a powerful classification of different epistemological frames. In his magnum opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, Wilber laid the now well-known 2x2 model. The first distinction is the interior-exterior axis, which refers to whether one is considering knowledge obtained from a first-person perspective (i.e., an interior epistemology) or whether one is considering knowledge obtained from a third person, objective perspective (i.e., an exterior epistemology).

The second axis is whether one is situated at the level of the individual or at the level of the social or collective. The combination of the two axes gives rise to the four quadrants: interior-individual, exterior-individual, interior-collective, and exterior-collective. These quadrants can be identified by the “keywords” of phenomenology, behavior, culture, and systems.

Here is the basic diagram:

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

What Wilber’s analysis makes clear is that different ideas and schools of thought have adopted different epistemologies that can be mapped by this diagram. Consider, for example, the difference between Carl Roger’s Humanistic approach to psychology that emphasized the core subjective experience of the individual, and B. F. Skinner's approach that emphasized the argument that behavior was the keyframe to scientifically understand animals and humans. Likewise, some social theorists tend to emphasize culture and the social construction of knowledge, as well as knowledge from within the worldview of the culture (what anthropologists call the "emic" perspective), as opposed to others that emphasize the societal systems and other external structures that situate the cultural activities (what anthropologists call the "etic" perspective).

For general purposes, consider applying these epistemological frames to your own life. To do so, think about your world from your interior point of view. Your thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are only truly accessible to you and no one else. Then think about how you look from the outside.

For example, consider how a camera would capture your behaviors, or others might interpret what you are doing. Then consider your perspective from the vantage point of the collective group or culture that you are a part of. For example, if you are Christian, consider how you see the world in a way that is shared with other Christians. Then think about it from the collective exterior and see Christianity as an institution and version of reality that is embedded in societal systems.

We have advanced in our understanding of human knowledge from the basic division of the subjective, objective, and intersubjective in Part I into a more complete model of epistemology provided by Wilber's quadrants. The next essay will return to metaphysics and ontology, at which point we will be able more fully frame how the Tree of Knowledge System offers a new view of both reality and our scientific knowledge of it.