Multiple ways of knowing

In March 2014 on March 29, 2014 at 7:01 pm


Kirsti: In processing information and making decisions, I typically use evidence conveyed to me via my senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Like Sarah, I enjoy a bit of repeatability (yes, this is a word, and it’s different from repetitiveness!). Logic and rationale are friends of mine, and lead me to what I’d like to think are relatively robust conclusions about the world around me.

But there are multiple ways of acquiring, organising and using knowledge. And because of that, there are multiple truths.

Last year I participated in some fascinating research looking into academics’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing. At the time, University of Sydney PhD candidate Kathryn Bartimote-Aufflick was conducting research to better understand formative influences on academics’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing, examining possible linkages to gender, cultural generation, discipline, institution, ethnicity, religion, and parents’ education and religion.

Completing her survey was one of the most mind bending experiences of my academic career!

The questions challenged my belief about how I obtained knowledge – did I construct it, create it, piece together ‘truths’ of my own? Or did I believe that I came across knowledge; that the ‘truth’ was always there and I just had to discover it? It was the first time I’d thought deeply about these beliefs of mine and I learnt a lot about epistemology – the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and scope of knowledge.

I got uncomfortable too – for a minute! I was one of the few surveyed academics who believed that there were multiple ways of knowing, and that ‘my way’ was not necessarily the ‘right’ way. She said I held quite a dichotomous view on such things, and I’ll tell you why.

I am similar to my Dad: we’re mostly evidence-based people. We seek out and acquire knowledge, and then organise it and use it to make sense of the world.  I’m comfortable with this approach, which is probably why I chose science. But in contrast, my Mum and sister create knowledge, based primarily on their perspectives, beliefs, passions and current directions. This is intuition.

What I couldn’t reconcile during the survey was that the intuitive way of constructing truths was any less valid than mine. The lives of my Mum and sister are fulfilling, successful and happy, and they are motivated, educated and knowledgeable people. It’s just that their truths are slightly different to mine, and the processes whereby we create them are different. Hence my dichotomous view on ways of knowing has come to be.

On occasion, the existence of facts in our family can almost divide us. However, in acknowledging that there is no one ‘right’, but many truths, we smile and nod, and love each other just a little bit more.

[image thanks to Ringling Brothers Circus on flickr]

  1. Nice really enjoyed this blog. I remember having a (brief) disagreement with a few mathematicians once about my thoughts of the many ways of knowing. As you might no doubt imagine the mathematicians (or at least these ones) believed in only one way and theirs was the right way 🙂

  2. Thanks Heidi! Yes, it can be difficult to see other perspectives if your brain is very hard-wired or conditioned to view information in only one way. It would be interesting to explore the contributions of genes and environment in determining the ways we perceive knowing.

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