What is knowledge?

In my last post I wrote that empirical science is limited in its ability to provide comprehensive knowledge for the metaphysical questions that nag us as human beings, but what is knowledge and how do we classify it? These questions alone have been the topic of many books, but let’s Butler Library at Columbiakeep it simple by sticking to a standard definition.  Most English dictionaries list several definitions, most of them similar, but I will combine two from dictionary.com to keep this post brief.  For our use here, its definition is: the acquaintance of or familiarity with facts, principles, and theories, acquired by experience, report, or study/investigation.

In short, knowledge is obtained by education, by experience, and sometimes both.  The branch of philosophy concerned with both the limits of human knowledge and the methods of obtaining it is known as epistemology.  Epistemology is also concerned with the origin and nature of knowledge.

The three basic categories of knowledge

In general, knowledge is classified into three basic categories among philosophers, though it should be noted it is not infrequent to find overlap in these categories.  The three main categories are:

  1. Knowledge by acquaintance or personal knowledge.  It is obtained by repetitive personal interaction, which brings about familiarity. An example would be: I know Allen because we have been friends for many years.  I am familiar with his personality traits and some of the current events and historical events of his life. e.g. He is married (current event) and grew up in Brooklyn (historical event), respectively.

  2. pianoProcedural knowledge, often referred to as knowledge-how.  It is often acquired through instruction (though not always), learning, and repetitive action.  An example of its stated use would be: After seven years of lessons and consistent practice, I know how to play the piano.


Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth     3.  Propositional or descriptive knowledge.  It is knowledge declared to be true based on a fact and is more ambiguous and of the three classifications here, is definitely the most debated in philosophical circles. Instead of “knowledge-how,” it is the “knowledge-that,” and is often stated “I know that A because of B.” Example: I know that Yankee hall-of-famer Lou Gehrig wore number the number 4 on his jersey.

Understanding these basic categories of knowledge gives a better understanding for the argument that if the knowledge obtained by the study and experimentation of empirical science it provides is limited, then it logically follows that the nature of knowledge embodies more than just what empirical science provides us.  Further, we must be open to other types of knowledge as well as how to acquire such knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of the universe.  I will begin that topic in my next post.

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