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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Knowledge: Nagel- Chapter 1 Summary

In chapter one of Jennifer Nagel’s book Knowledge, she immediately challenges the reader to think about the difference between knowledge and fact. I had never really given much thought to the difference between the two. Nagel uses the following example to eloquently explain the separation between them, “Imagine shaking a sealed cardboard box containing a single coin. As you put the box down, the coin inside the box had landed wither heads or tails: let’s say that’s a fact. But as long as no one looks into the box, this fact remains unknown; it is not yet within the realm of knowledge. Nor do facts become knowledge simply by being written down. If you write the sentence, ‘The coin has landed on heads’ on one slip of paper and ‘The coin has landed on tails’ on another, then you will have written down a fact on one of the slips, but you still won’t have gained knowledge of the outcome of the coin toss” (p.3). The entire endeavor resides on there being a living thing to be able to access this fact and store it as knowledge. So there can be many things out there that are facts, but without something or someone able to decipher and recognize the fact, it remains just that. There is nothing to spread and share the fact that a fact exists. Whew!
Another point Nagel wants the reader to take into consideration is that knowledge can be possessed by a group. For example, an orchestra knows how to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony even if each section only knows how and when to play their particular instrument. Perfect example of why collaboration is so important to further our knowledge as a species. A collective group of fact carrying beings can share, compare and evolve their own level of knowledge thus furthering the groups knowledge and so on.
I’ll jump ahead a bit here because there is a topic that I was drawn to later in the chapter. Knowing v. thinking. Knowing insinuates truth behind it. Thinking show there is room for doubt. Nagel uses the following example on page 7-8, ‘Jill knows that her door is locked.’ v. ‘Bill thinks that his door is locked.’ There is an immediate distinction between the two. Jill’s situation implies fact, where as Bill’s leaves room for the possibility that his door is NOT locked. To identify this relationship between knowledge and fact is called factivity- we can only know facts or true propositions. Now, one can argue there are false or imitations out there, i.e. do they really know or just seem to know?
     This leads us to the Ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras that held, “Knowledge is always of the true, but also that different things could be true for different people“ (p. 10). He goes on to say, “It is true for me that the wind really is cold and true for you that the wind is warm.” So my questions is, do our own perceptions dictate our reality in what we think we know?

1 comment:

  1. Perceptions definitely guide our knowledge claims, as empiricists insist they should. But "dictate" sounds rigid. Perception plus reflection on perception should be a more flexible and, as you point out, collaborative affair. I like the way William James thought about the relation between knowledge, facts, and truth:

    "I am a natural realist. The world per se may be likened to a cast of beans on a table. By themselves they spell nothing. An onlooker may group them as he likes. He may simply count them all and map them. He may select groups and name these capriciously, or name them to suit certain extrinsic purposes of his. Whatever he does, so long as he takes account of them, his account is neither false nor irrelevant. If neither, why not call it true? It fits the beans- minus-him, and expresses the total fact, of beans-plus-him. Truth in this total sense is partially ambiguous, then. If he simply counts or maps, he obeys a subjective interest as much as if he traces figures. Let that stand for pure "intellectual" treatment of the beans, while grouping them variously stands for non- intellectual interests. All that Schiller and I contend for is that there is no "truth" without some interest, and that non- intellectual interests play a part as well as intellectual ones. Whereupon we are accused of denying the beans, or denying being in anyway constrained by them! It's too silly!"

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