Epistemology – on knowledge and knowing

ConfuciusMy experiences and understanding (i.e. my mental model) of the world is (incredibly) limited. That wasn’t a confession – so is yours 🙂

Further, I might tell you about my experiences but my description can only be a partial representation and, however good I am at explaining, you cannot share my experience.

You can only construct your own mental representation of what my experiences might be like…and apply this to your (current) mental model of the world.

Epistemology

So what?

If we don’t realise and (regularly) reflect on the fact that we are all working on limited and incompletely-communicated models then we can get stuck in debates about who is right and who is wrong. And of course, we will always be right won’t we!

Instead, we need to (truly) grasp two things:

  • My (and your) mental model of the world is tremendously limited; and
  • If we don’t habitually see this limitation, then we will likely spend our time reinforcing (rather than exploring and expanding) this mental model.

Why does this matter?

So, you might be gloriously happy with your mental model of the world and not give a damn about what others think!

This would be a reasonable position to hold if your mental model also considers that the world is currently, and will remain, perfect (from your point of view).

However, if (as is likely) you think that there are plenty of problems with the world and plenty of room for improvement, then you are (to put it mildly) unlikely to move towards desirable outcomes if you don’t reflect on your (and others) limitations and what this implies.

Some related words of wisdom:

“The more views we have of a thing, the better we can understand it.”

 “Complete understanding of anything, let alone everything, is an ideal that can be approached continuously but can never be attained.”

 “In systems thinking, increases in understanding are believed to be obtained by expanding the systems to be understood, not by reducing them to their elements.”

 Russell Ackoff

It should be of interest to us if someone’s mental model appears to differ from our own.

Footnote:

1. This short post came about from reflecting on a piece written on the subject of epistemology (on knowledge and knowing) within the course ‘Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice’, at The Open University.

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