Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Areas of Knowledge

Too often these days, it seems, I am asked what a way of thinking is, or what a way of knowing is. There is a whole group of terms that need defining here, but yet they cannot be defined narrowly.

'Thought', to begin with, is the process of data transfer in the brain. Whether this is thought of as a chemical phenomenon or an electrical one (it is both), conscious or subconscious, the fact remains that all would agree that the state of a brain before a thought, and the state of the same brain after, cannot be the same. Something has changed, and we prefer to think of it in terms of data (at the very least).

A 'way of thinking' is therefore a pattern (or process, or procedure) involving data transfers that bear similar characteristics and follow (or appear to follow, or are aimed at, or appear to be aimed at) the same direction, intention, purpose or goal. In the abstract, a way of thinking is a pattern that exists with or without real data transfers. It can be hypothetical or actual, practical or not.

'Knowledge', according to at least one theory, is the contextualised framing of validated information. 'Information', in turn, arises from data that have been structured (formulated or 'informed', that is, placed in a formation) or given form. 'Data' (singular = 'datum') are elements processed by a system that change the state of a system. We can be more exacting in our definitions, especially if we are cognitive scientists or computer scientists, but these definitions are deliberately broad in order to allow for more possibilities.

A 'way of knowing' is therefore a pattern (or process, or procedure) involving the collection of data which can be made into information and then contextualised into knowledge. There are many ways of knowing, but for humans these can be divided into two groups: intrinsic (i.e., involving processes taking place entirely in the human body) and extrinsic (i.e., with some attempt at processing outside the human body or which need external standards for validation).

Generally, sensory perception and emotional response are intrinsic ways of knowing and cannot be shared very efficiently, while formal reasoning and language are extrinsic ways of knowing and can be shared a lot more efficiently. One way of looking at this might be that we have developed the extrinsic ways of knowing in order to share the intrinsic ways of knowing. You can argue that reason is intrinsic, and this is probably true, but there's no way to tell that a person engages in formal reasoning unless it's expressed; everything about human reasoning, strictly speaking, is a 'black box' effect without external validation.

Which brings me to 'areas of knowledge'. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, an area of knowledge is defined in terms of parametric characteristics. Essentially, an area of knowledge is an array of knowledge chunks or pieces that share common characteristics such that they can be connected together into a 'body of knowledge'. This can normally described in some short general definition, e.g. 'History is about chaps while geography is about maps' or something like that.

There are larger areas of knowledge which follow very general paradigms, and smaller sub-areas. For example, 'aesthetics' is a huge area of knowledge that is based on the emotional response to sensory perception. Within 'aesthetics' are sub-areas such as 'music' or 'sculpture'. Within 'music' you would find smaller areas concerning its historical basis, instrumentation and instrument use, works and description and analysis of works, and so on. You can have a very tiny area of knowledge such as '17th-century musical works performed by double-reeded instruments and workmen's tools in anechoic chambers' or something like that.

And there I will stop for a while to gather my breath. I suspect that with the coming round of TOK topics, I will need all the creative energy I can store. If such energy does indeed exist and can be stored, that is.

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