Is all our knowledge a construct?

Douglas P. McManaman
Copyright © 2014
Reproduced with Permission

In the context of IB Theory of Knowledge, we often come upon the expression "the production of knowledge" employed in various contexts. The impression we might be left with is that knowledge is some kind of construct, an active producing, like a work of art. Also employed by IB is a metaphor that compares knowledge to a map.

A question we might wish to ask is whether knowledge is a construction, a production, either in part or in whole. I will argue that knowledge cannot be entirely a construct or production, only partially so. I will argue that it is more fitting to speak of the "genesis" of knowledge than the "production" of knowledge.

Firstly, it seems to me that knowledge cannot be, in its entirety, a matter of production. Knowing is indeed an activity, not a pure passivity, and clearly knowledge "comes to be". So there is a sense in which knowledge is produced. But to produce or manufacture something is to make something come to be "out of" a subject, or some kind of matter. The process of production depends in part upon the raw materials "out of which" the product is made. Art is a matter of production, and art imposes form on a pre-existing matter (i.e., paint, iron, soapstone, wood, letters of the alphabet, etc). "What" the product ends up being is determined by the form in the mind of the artist that he imposes upon the matter.

Thus, if knowledge were entirely a matter of production, the knower would be the measure of what is true, which means that whatever he knows is always true precisely because he knows it - for he has produced it.

If this were the case, however, the metaphor of the map would be unfitting. The reason is that a map, although it is produced, is intended to be a map "of the city" or a map "of the country", etc. That which the map is intended to represent (to make present to the mind of the one reading the map) is something other than the map, namely the city or country, and it is this that is the measure or standard of the quality of the map. It is not the mind of the map maker that is the measure of the map's accuracy; the map is that through which I come to know something other than the map.

In other words, there is an "object" of knowledge, and the object is "the real", that is, real being that is outside the mind. Knowledge is a union between the knower and the known. What the knower knows, namely "real" being, exists in his mind in a new way, as "logical" being. But it is not "logical" being that I know. In other words, 'ideas' are not the object of my knowledge; rather, the ideas of 'dog' or "tree" or "a type of cancer treatment" are that "through which" I know that dog, or that tree, or what this treatment is that this person is undergoing, etc.

Knowledge is not an entirely passive affair, however. The knower contributes something of his own in the knowing process. For one, he contributes his own limited standpoint. Much of what he will come to know depends upon a host of epistemic conditions that need to be in place if he is to come to apprehend something or other, conditions such as specific experiences of certain people, places, cultures, historical situations, which in turn give rise to problems that need to be solved, which in turn give rise to specific questions, which in turn bring his mind into focus on one matter to the exclusion of another or other matters, etc. The knower is also subject to a host of biases or slants (inclinations) that he is often unaware of, but which actively contribute something to the genesis of knowledge. Many of these biases distort our grasp of the real. The ability to recognize that, however, logically implies that knowledge is not entirely a matter of production or construction. In other words, I know I can be subject to anchoring, or to an availability heuristic, or the narrative fallacy, etc., because I am able - or someone else is able - to stand outside of that, to transcend it in some way . I am able to see how an anchor has influenced my decision, or how my judgment relied too heavily on information that was readily available, or how a narrative, which was my own construct, has added to the content of the facts before me, introducing something that is not part of the real state of affairs I claim to understand. If we are able to become aware of this fact, it follows that our knowledge is not entirely productive, but partially so; for if it were entirely a matter of production, I could never know it, for I could never transcend it (i.e., I would never know the world is larger than my mind if I could never come to see what was larger than my mind, just as I would never know the world is larger than Markham if I was unable to travel beyond Markham).

There is such a thing as a view from nowhere (Thomas Nagel). Indeed, it is often the case that I will not understand something until I am in the right position, under the right conditions, or after having "walked a mile in someone else's shoes". That expression says a great deal, for after having "walked in someone else's shoes", I have discovered something that I would have otherwise missed, but once I understand it (whatever it is), what I now understand is a real objective state of affairs. For example, after living with this man or after having to work with him for a while, I now know what you meant before when you said he is neurotic, has serious control issues, is rude and obnoxious, etc.,. I see now that from a distance, I was unable to appreciate what you were talking about. I had to walk in your shoes, be his employee as you were, or his associate, etc., before I could understand it. I now "stand under" it, that is, I am now in the right "position" to grasp what I was missing before being put in that position.

What I see now, however, is true regardless of the perspective. It is a real state of affairs independent of anyone's perspective and independent of anyone knowing it, i.e., he really is neurotic, controlling, and rude, etc. It is now a view from nowhere.

Knowledge can be compared to a map in the sense that the totality of what we know is that through which we interpret or "make sense" out of the realm of the real, which is larger than the mind. When we construct an actual map, we do so on the basis of what is really so, i.e., Yonge Street really does run north and south, and it really does intersect with Bloor Street, etc., and the more time we put into the construction of the map, the better the map is likely to be. But that which the map is intended to chart, namely the actual city or country, is the measure of the map's quality, accuracy, or completeness. In knowledge, what we know primarily is real being, and it is the real that is the measure of the accuracy of our own intellectual map or model of reality. The map is the product of the knowing process, the model that is left over, and it is a highly influential model, and it is always incomplete and in need of development.

If all knowledge were a pure construct or production, without anything against which to measure the accuracy of what we know, then knowledge is no longer about "something", it is no longer the "knowledge of" some aspect of the real. In fact, objectivity would itself be a pure construct. But if objectivity were to become a pure product of the subject, then how is it that one would ever know what a "subject" is. Subjectivity would be lost on us, for "subject" is a correlative term; it can only be understood against the background of what is not "subject", but "object".