On Some Forms of Knowing

In this essay, I will discuss knowledge. We tend to speak of knowledge as a "body" that exists somewhere in the ether, but for the purposes of this essay, I'd like to restrict the subject of that knowledge to a single individual, who acts as the "knower"1. Knowledge is a broader topic than simple true or false statements, it "includes notions of 'know-how,' 'knowing how to live,' 'how to listen'"2. I intend to focus on symbolic knowledge, that we can create and access consciously through language, as to avoid the complications when discussing "unconscious knowledge".

The intent of this post is to distinguish between several forms of knowledge, based on their method of production and their context, highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and uses. In particular, I'd like to comment on "scientific knowledge" and the role it plays in shaping our thought.

A Non-Exhaustive Taxonomy

When we think of knowledge as existing in a body, it begs the question of "what body is it, exactly, that contains this knowledge, and how is it transmitted?" All "bodies of knowledge" fundamentally exist as statements accepted as true within a group. An individual receives this knowledge through their position in a language game3, which regulates the mechanisms that depict this knowledge's form and content. Knowledge transmitted through a language game is received by a potential knower, "from without", who uses it as an interpretive lens "on top of" their experience. Thus, all bodies of knowledge, when received in this way, are "top-down": used to generate predictions about the world4, "above" the knower's immediate experience5.

In what follows, I would like to detail several forms of top-down knowledge, and their general role in our lives.

Top-Down Forms of Knowledge

(1) "Casual Intersubjective" knowledge is the most basic and flexible form of top-down knowledge. It relies on transmissions within casual and nebulous groups of individuals, lacking clear formal constraints or boundaries on admissible statements within its particular language game.

As an example, consider the "simple" form of a friend telling you "shorts are cool", and then you make a judgement about the context in which that statement's true. Perhaps that friend is a close friend, and you take it merely as their own expression of taste. But, more often, we associate our friends with specific social groups, in which case the statement can be interpreted as a metonymy: the friend speaking for the group, saying, "with us, shorts are cool". It may also be modified, if they say, "oh, THOSE shorts are SO cool ...", in which case you might interpret the sarcasm as a negation, gaining knowledge that "with us, or me, shorts are not cool".

Most take this form of knowledge seriously, but it's also of little use when discussing with a broader range of individuals. It relies on one's understanding of their particular group's situation, which isn't accessible to an outside observer. So, if one wants to make statements that anyone might consider true, one needs to rely on another, more restrictive, but also more accessible form of knowledge-production.

(2) Formal Institutional knowledge is an attempt to formalize, and thus provide broader accessibility to intersubjective knowledge. The "trick" is that institutional claims to knowledge have some strings attached. Each individual accepts the legitimacy of a particular set of institutions, and takes their utterences as true. For most institutions, this knowledge is contingent: we accept formal claims of government bureaucracies such as the FDA as true, but we also are well aware that the FDA makes its own rules, and that "the FDA does not consider this a food product" doesn't mean you can't eat it.

One particular institution, however, does claim to embody "the laws of nature" themselves. We call this institution Science. In the formal language game which constitutes science, any admissible "fact" needs to be both verifiable and falsifiable6. If we trust a scientific fact, this means accepting that it was subject to these criteria of verifiability and falsifiability, and thus can be "taken for granted" without one needing to reproduce it on their own. Of course, this has led to some problems7, but many still see scientific statements as the "most true" form of knowledge.

But certain truths that claim to be science are actually not scientific, in this strict sense of verifiable and falsifiable. Consider the field of "evolutionary" science: some of their claims rely on something "extra", a particular "story" about time beyond falsifiability8. I claim these represent an entirely separate form of knowledge, despite their claim to science. But what?

(3) Narrative knowledge is a form of knowledge that depends on the listener's relationship to a story9. The simplest form of narrative knowledge emerges from "folk tales", or "children's stories", which set forth a cultural path along which an individual can place themselves. Much cultural "how-to-live" knowledge depends on narratives. "Life imitates fiction"; we imitate the TV shows we watch, the novels we read, drawing knowledge from them about the "proper" ways to conduct ourselves and evaluate our achievements and goals.

"Scientific" narratives10 form a special cluster within narrative knowledge, as they snag science's implied claims to legitimacy, by pretending to exist within the language game of verifiability and falsifiability. In other words, every scientific narrative is really a story about nature, and not a formal utterence. This is an equivalent story-telling mode to "religious narratives" (which are "about nature," but grounded in "the supernatural" rather than in a fictitious claim of formal status), which is why we see accusations of "Scientism", the religion of science. Put differently, evolution is scientific if confined to a falsifiable scale, but religious if it attempts to explain something "human-sized"11, like "how evolution caused your depression."

I will note that just because a form of knowledge is narrative, does not mean that it is inherently "false" or "fake". It generally depends on real events: even fairy tales. Despite their supernatural settings, the human characters tend to have quite real and relatable experiences. The supernatural elements are merely a means to contextualize the human truths. It is this sense of "relating to my own life" that leads into the last form of knowledge I want to discuss.

Bottom-Up Forms of Knowledge

Not all knowledge "comes from without". Some knowledge arises as a result of our own particular sensory experiences. This knowledge may still guide us in a "top-down" sense once crystallized as truth, but it's of a different origin. The main distinction is that "bottom-up" knowledge emerges from experiences inherently detached from the social world, until communicated to others. What might this look like?

(4) Phenomenological knowledge is the form of knowledge that depends on "one's own relationship to their experience". As a simple example, you're on a walk and you see a rock. Your immediate sensory experience is of immersion; you are seeing, but you have no knowledge of what you're seeing. A moment later, you realize "I am looking at a rock"12. You have created phenomenological knowledge, by introducing a piece of your experience into the world of symbols. The dependency on the social world is partly removed: sure, you need to know the term "rock", but even if you didn't, you could call that heavy, gray thing a "thorg", and you'd still be able to recognize it and use it as an object for thought.

The main place where phenomenological knowledge lives is in those experiences which only the knower has access to, such as emotions. Others can witness one's face and words and claim "you are feeling angry", and they might be right, but ultimately the knowledge of one's own anger must arise from a witnessing and symbolizing of some experience, and one's feelings of anger are only partly accessible to others, mediated by bodily positions13.

A more clear example is when one's feeling a particular way, but "puts on the role" anyway, such as going to work despite feeling sad. Nobody around might recognize the sadness (although hopefully they recognize that "something is off"). It's up to the "feeler" to create that knowledge for themselves.

And so entire domains of phenomenology exist, which cannot "tell you what to believe" as with institutional knowledge, but instead guide readers through the steps to eventually arrive at the "best carving" of their own experience. This is how Heidegger discusses boredom: he sets up successive experiences which might be described as "boredom", and slowly reveals the inessential elements by relating them to other experiences, leaving behind only the core of the emotion14. Readers aren't supposed to take his word for it, they can try it themselves. And similarly, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit attempts to evoke the sense of dialectic within the reader as they read, so they can observe themselves grappling with the ideas expressed by the text while reading the text, and understand what it is he's describing.

A counterpoint might arise, at this point: "but we do not need this form of knowledge, we have Psychology, which is a science, and can tell us about our experiences in an verifiable, falsifiable way." My counterargument is that some experiences aren't subject to these constraints, or, put differently, some true facts aren't admissible as science. Put into practice, the more philosophical "self-knowledge" domains realize this fundamental inequity between "raw" experiences and received knowledge. Their solution is to teach subjective tools, so that an individual can access their experiential landscape and develop self-understanding, which creates the possibility of change. In comparison, the practice of psychology often looks like some other with imperfect knowledge trying to "fix" an individual for that individual's own sake. This is why psychology as a medical practice is seen as "coercive", because psychology tries to "fix you for you", against your own will. But perhaps we would rather have someone else fix us, than address the defenses we've set up against fixing ourselves.

A Brief Note on the Word "Science"

Prior to the emergence of science as an institution, i.e. as a specific, stable language game, phenomenological knowledge was itself known as "science". But as the body of scientific knowledge grew larger, especially once specialized tools such as the telescope and microscope entered into science, the idea that a single unaided knower could verify scientific claims through their own experience became unreasonable. Thus began the split between scientific claims "taken on faith", but "phenomenological to someone" (as I use the term in this essay), vs. scientific claims which one can observe with their own eyes15. However, the heritage of popular phenomenological science lives on, mostly in the guise of erowid.org trip reports.

Some Applications

At a certain point a few years ago, I found myself involved in a particular set of communities, which avowed various beliefs about race, IQ, etc. The scientific results seemed sound, but something still felt "off" about what they were saying. I kept trying to figure out what it was that made me feel "off", and it wasn't until I began thinking in terms of "forms of knowledge" that I realized what it was.

Consider the notion of, say, "dopamine". I might have some experience, a tingle of pleasure at listening to a certain song. The first leap of knowledge is phenomenological, "I'm feeling a tingle of pleasure"! But what happens next is important: I find myself asking "why?". This question produces the next leap of knowledge, away from phenomenology and into institutional knowledge: "because my brain released some dopamine which caused me to feel pleasure." But, now I've made an extra leap of faith, and moved from depending on my own experience to depending on someone else's research. I've essentially imposed some new knowledge, originating "from without", "on top of" my direct experience, thus removing myself from the immediate world and placing myself "into a discourse".

I could imagine taking a different leap: at that crucial moment of "why?" I could proclaim ignorance: "who knows?" and ignore the question. But that would leave me with some doubt, the question would nag at me. So I could instead answer "because the song is beautiful, in some way." Now, rather than shifting my concern into the realm of science, where I might want to go read neuroscience papers and try to understand myself through the "universal mind of Man", my concern remains subjective, "what did I find beautiful about this song? Where else can I find beauty in the world?"

Institutional knowledge is often useful, and many domains of science have produced rich insights. But the flip side, especially when dealing with issues like "society" and "the world", is falling into "doomscrolling", consuming news claiming to represent Science and opening up new wells of concern, which often have very little to do with your day-to-day perceptions. It's as if the news media generates a world for you much larger than the one in which you live, and then screws it up, so you keep worrying and reading more news and feel consumed by a desire to Take Action somehow in that much larger world. And so now, our sense of "ethics" has become something like "donating money" or "supporting federal politics", which depends on a particular narrative, which competes with the narrative that the most "Good" can be done within our immediate world of perceptions and people.

This "narrative stance" of taking "a universal view" was present before the Internet, though, when it was known as the "Archimedean point", the imagined point from which one can view the entirety of the world in a single frame16. A major sort of ethical narrative that proceeds from the Archimedean framing is to pick a privileged idea as an "ultimate measure", such as "suffering" or "pleasure", and then use scientific knowledge to "optimize" this measure across the entirety of the world (often generalized to a plea for donations). What this stance misses is that, in assuming a hypothetical "gods-eye" view, the actor lacks any phenomenological knowledge about their experiences. All knowledge in this ethics is mediate, coming from someone or somewhere else; it lacks any direct knowledge that comes from seeing one's actions help someone before them. In other words, one must take the narrative on faith.

If one can sensitize themselves to the difference between immediate and mediate knowledge, the distinction between what one reads online and what one experiences immanently, without the veil of a Weltanschauung17 or ideology to problematize its banality, if one can do this, they might realize the absolute strangeness of these mediate forms of knowledge in terms of how they dictate our lives. And yet, the grass grows without knowing its family is "Poaceae", so too much of one's day-to-day life remains rather unaffected by whatever one hears on the news.

Critique

The entire supposition of a "phenomenological knowledge" rests on a set of assumptions about our relation to the world. One could argue that phenomenological knowledge itself is grounded in a form of narrative, and I would counter that nobody needs to introduce you into the "technique" of phenomenology, you've been doing it already, since you were a child. The narrative here is at a meta-level: making one conscious of the differences within their knowledge.

Surely these differences in knowledge can be rejected as arbitrary, as a consequence of a "false" dualism between mind and the world, mind and society, etc. But I argue that there's a particular psychological state which leads one to create this difference, that of "hysteria". According to Freud, a "hysterical" psychic state occurs when one is confronted by a split between two parts of their own psyche18, often exposing the question of "who am I really?" And it's at the behest of this question that one might realize there exist fundamental differences between forms of top-down knowledge, and that phenomenology may be a useful tool for determining what's "real" about oneself. But I can't prove it, you'll have to experience it yourself.

Freud himself understood it intuitively; he was a famous hypochondriac, who'd get stomachaches every Sunday when he had to visit his mother19. Hypochondria in particular can be seen a hysterical state, where one's psyche is split between one's "normal" psychic state, and a paranoid state induced through one's medical knowledge, focused on discovering an aetiology, or causal diagnosis. So, one falls into the mental realm of medicine and "discovers the cause" through Reason, often a very severe condition, when in fact the cause was a migraine headache and not brain damage. This phenomenon is so well-known among medical students that it's colloquially called "med student's disease".

My point in discussing hysteria is that one does not need to abandon a physicalist viewpoint and assume some sort of ontological dualism to see that phenomenological techniques have value. If one can observe their own moments of hysteria, their own "splits in the psyche", one can realize the extent to which "ideas from without" dictate how one judges their own lives and experiences. Ultimately the point of the phenomenological method is to produce a form of freedom, in which the "naive knower" becomes aware of all the different places from which they produce knowledge, and can select the appropriate form for the task at hand.

Although I focused my criticism on institutional knowledge, particularly within science, I only do this as a corrective to what I see as an excess of faith in received knowledge, to the detriment of the individual. Hopefully I made it clear that my intent in this essay was to lead the reader in this direction, through drawing distinctions between these forms of knowledge--casual intersubjective, formal institutional, narrative, and phenomenological--and revealing some lines of tension that they produce in practice.

Many thanks to my proofreaders for humoring me, @gundwyn, @suspendedreason, @erin_nerung, and @Childermass4.


  1. We could imagine a different "knower" than an individual, for example some sort of Hegelian "spirit" of a discourse, but this would cause confusion within the context of this piece, for little benefit. 

  2. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 18. 

  3. For a brief exposition, see ibid. pp. 9-11. 

  4. I draw the terms "top-down" and "bottom-up" from the contemporary work of neuropsychologist Karl Friston on "predictive processing," although the concepts themselves precede his work. For an overview and an interesting application of Friston's work to the serotonin system, see: Carhart-Harris, R. L. and Friston, K. J. "REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics" (2019). doi:10.1124/pr.118.017160

  5. Hence when Hegel calls the "realm of laws" that govern nature and constitute "Reason" the "supersensible world" (Phenomenology of Spirit §§ 144-165), we might imagine these laws as imposing interpretations on us, from "above", from the top-down. 

  6. This originally read "observable and reproducible", but I chose to instead use Lyotard's original definition of the scientific "research" game. Original definition as follows, from Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 24: "The first [rule]: the referent is that which is susceptible to proof and can be used as evidence in a debate. Not: I can prove something because reality is the way I say it is. But: as long as I can produce proof, it is permissible to think that reality is the way I say it is. The second rule is metaphysical; the same referent cannot supply a plurality of contradictory or inconsistent proofs. Or stated differently: 'God' is not deceptive. These two rules underlie what nineteenth-century science calls verification and twentieth-century science, falsification." 

  7. Think "replication crisis", but perhaps we should take a moment to consider whether the "replication crisis" is a mere methodology error, or a more fundamental issue with the entire affected domains. 

  8. Evolutionary knowledge is, however, verifiable, by Lyotard's definition as "that for which I can produce proof." In fact, the entire body of "evolutionary science" rests on its claim to verifiability, despite contextual problems with falsifiability. 

  9. In terms of language games, narrative knowledge is quite loose. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition, p. 20: "The narrative form, unlike the developed forms of the discourse of knowledge, lends itself to a great variety of language games. Denotative statements concerning, for example, the state of the sky and the flora and fauna easily slip in; so do deontic statements prescribing what should be done with respect to these same referents, or with respect to kinship, the difference between the sexes, children, neighbors, foreigners, etc. Interrogative statements are implied, for example, in episodes involving challenges (respond to a question, choose one from a number of things); evaluative statements also enter in, etc." 

  10. I would like to be clear that I'm referring to "naive" or "pop science" accounts of scientific positions. Scientific publications themselves tend to avoid grand narratives, but their conclusions are often taken and extended into unscientific shapes in communications with the mass public. 

  11. For a discussion of "evolutionary-size" vs. "human-size" events and their respective falsifiability or lack of, see: Williams, M. B. (1973). Falsifiable Predictions of Evolutionary Theory. Philosophy of Science, 40(4), 518-537. doi:10.1086/288562

  12. cf. Hegel's "dialectic of sense-certainty", Phenomenology of Spirit, §§ 90-110. 

  13. Some might argue that, no, there's no "internal experience" apart from bodily position, and I'm sympathetic, but it also misses the fact that each individual has an internal symbolic world, which means that there's always a missing link, between one's perception of another's anger and its cause. 

  14. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger leads from the form of boredom one experiences at a train station, to the boredom of going to a party and later realizing that one was bored the whole time, and finally to a profound, existential boredom as the "fundamental attunement of Man", which runs quite close to the Buddhist notion of "dukkha". 

  15. cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, pp. 257-275. 

  16. For a much richer discussion of the emergence and impact of the Archimedean point, see ibid. 

  17. cf. https://twitter.com/KBULTRA0/status/1288202553147232256 

  18. For details, see Freud & Breuer's theoretical discussions in Studies on Hysteria

  19. See https://www.pbs.org/youngdrfreud/pages/family_mother.htm: "[Freud] saw his mother weekly for Sunday lunch, but he had stomach aches every time. ... [he] was continually worried about his poor health, feared that he would die before his mother." 


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