- In a previous series, I have discussed the nature and purpose of education. When we are educated we learn what we did not know before. But what is knowledge? Can we have knowledge? Before we can answer whether or not we can have knowledge we must understand what knowledge is. The problem is that this is a difficult question.
There are many ways to view knowledge. Some view knowledge as an awareness of facts. The more facts that we know, the more knowledge we have. Others view knowledge as a practical ability. If an ability requires training, then someone who can exercise that ability knows how to use that ability. Still others view knowledge as understanding. Simply knowing facts means nothing if those facts are not understood and put into a whole. A fourth group believe that knowledge is an awareness of how to act in particular situations gained by experience. Finally, some believe that knowledge is a knowledge of persons themselves and how particular people act in general and in particular situations. These five conceptions of knowledge are very different.
So the first question to ask is how these five conceptions of knowledge are all knowledge. Let’s call the knowledge that is an awareness of facts factual knowledge; the knowledge that is of how to use an ability practical knowledge; the knowledge of how to understand something theoretical knowledge; the knowledge of experience experiential knowledge and the knowledge of people personal knowledge. These various kinds of knowledge may be compared in three different ways. First, they may be equivocal. The ‘bank’ of a river and the ‘bank’ that has money in it have no meaning in common. This is equivocal. Second, they may be univocal. A ‘light’ that is big and a ‘light’ that is small have exactly the same meaning of ‘light’. This is univocal. Third and finally, the meaning may be analogous. In this case, some meaning is held in common and some is not. Goodness is like this. My food tastes ‘good’ because I like the taste, but it is ‘good’ because it is nutritious. Since liking taste and being nutritious are different things, they are not univocal. However, they are not equivocal because nutritious food tends to taste good and both good nutrition and good taste are various aspects of happiness – which is the good of humans in general.
It does not appear immediately obvious that these conceptions of knowledge are either univocal or equivocal. Without assuming that they are analogous, we should investigate each conception in order to determine what they are and how they are related (if at all) to the other conceptions of knowledge.
At this point a brief consideration of modern philosophy is necessary. We cannot assume that knowledge is a kind of belief or that knowledge is a kind of truth without assuming that knowledge simply is factual knowledge. Neither can we assume that we know exactly what knowledge is without examining each of these five conceptions. Nor should we confuse the attempt to understand knowledge with a debate over the meaning of words. This is not a problem of what the word ‘knowledge’ means. It is an attempt to understand knowledge itself. Making sure that we are using the same meaning is just the first step in resolving any problem.