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Knowledge summary

Jennifer Nagel

A Very Short Introduction

4.2 (88 ratings)
25 mins
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    The verb “to know” is simple, but carries a complex meaning.

    These days, knowledge is within easy reach. The internet is only ever a click away, and media operates on a 24-hour cycle. But that knowledge is intermingled with opinion and propaganda. And in an era of information overload, it’s natural to wonder which is which. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find deeper questions: How do we know what we know? And what is knowledge, anyway?

    These questions are at the heart of epistemology, the philosophical field devoted to the study of knowledge.

    The key message here is: The verb “to know” is simple, but carries a complex meaning.

    There are a few things we need to get straight about knowledge.

    For one thing, knowledge is not a naturally appearing resource like gold or coal. It’s generated by a knower. Imagine a coin that's shaken in a box. It lands heads side up. That’s a fact. But until someone looks in the box, this fact isn’t knowledge, simply because it isn’t known. Knowledge is what happens when a person accesses a fact.

    For another thing, there’s a difference between knowing something to be true and believing it to be true. Sounds simple enough – but how can you tell whether you know something or merely believe it? Some cynics say that we can’t tell the difference, or even that there is no difference: knowledge is just a label we give to the beliefs of certain elite people like CEOs and scientists. A more generous approach might point out that even expert knowledge can be, and is, challenged. And besides, everyone can know. There’s a reason why “to know” is one of the ten most commonly used verbs in the English language.

    Here’s where things get really meta: we can only know things that we are confident are true. But who’s to say what “true” is? Plenty of philosophers think truth is objective, meaning it can’t vary from knower to knower. But the fifth-century Greek philosopher Protagoras thought differently. He posited that truth is subjective. After all, if two people stand in a breeze, one of them can know the breeze is cold while the other, with equal certainty, can know it's warm.

    But to take Protagoras’s argument to its logical conclusion, we’re forced to say that everyone is always right about what they feel to be true, and no one is ever wrong. So, then, for the purposes of interrogating knowledge further, let’s side with Plato and countless other philosophers who believe Protagoras is wrong and truth is objective; it’s something that exists as an entity outside any individual human self. 

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    What is Knowledge about?

    Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction (2014) is an accessible introduction to the complex field of epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge itself. What can we know? And how do we know that we know it? Knowledge surveys epistemological thinking from the ancient Greeks to contemporary philosophy, shining a bright light on this fascinating field of thought.

    Who should read Knowledge?

    • Philosophy buffs and newbies alike
    • Skeptics who take everything with a grain of salt
    • Knowledge workers interested in delving deeper into knowledge itself.

    About the Author

    Jennifer Nagel is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. A highly respected epistemologist, her work focuses on the nexus of knowledge and belief. In addition to Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, she’s written numerous academic articles on the topic of knowledge

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