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.


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.


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.

“What did you just call me?!”

what did you just call meSpeaker: “Erm, sorry, but I don’t think I ‘called you’ anything. I was just pointing out that, in this particular case, I believe that you are ignorant of what is actually happening….”

Receiver: “How VERY dare you!!!”

Speaker: “No, no, there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s not an accusation…”

When a rather useful word goes bad

If I look up the meaning of the word ‘ignorant’ in, say, the Oxford dictionary, I get a couple of meanings:

1. “Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about a particular thing”; and

2. “Discourteous or rude”

The example sentence given is “he was told constantly that he was ignorant and stupid”.

Unfortunately, this example sentence ensures that definition’s 1 and 2 are tangled together, and this ‘insult’ meaning has become the normal usage of the word – just as implied by the receiver in the introductory conversation.

…but I think the purely factual definition in meaning 1. is REALLY important and shouldn’t be taken negatively.

Pointing out the facts:

We are ALL ignorant, and whilst the nature of our ignorance will change, we will always be so.

This is where the following well-known quote2 fits in:

“The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know.”3

This is a good thing, because if we accept this, then it gives us an incredibly valuable platform to embark on a never-ending but ever-interesting journey of discovery and learning.

Trying to reclaim a word:

So, how about embracing the word ‘ignorant’.

I want to know if something I say or do shows that I am ignorant in respect of something important. In fact, I’d hate you to know this and NOT let me in on it!

But of course, in the same spirit, hopefully you might be uncertain as to whether it’s the other way around i.e. that I might know something that you don’t…

…and we have the perfect environment for a collaborative, non-judgemental conversation about our current worldviews.

Who knows what we might learn – we’ll probably find out that we are both ignorant 🙂 ….but we’ll both be the better for it.

(hopefully obvious) Clarification: I’m NOT suggesting that you rush out and start telling people that they are ignorant! Rather, I’m asking you to rethink the word, and what good it could do us all.

To close: You are very welcome to point out my ignorance in the comments section of any post that I publish…and I will (try to) read and consider in the manner that I describe above.


1. This short post comes from my weekly coffee conversation with my good mate Paul. We always talk over stuff and find out new ways of thinking about things.

2. Quote source: attributed to just about anyone and everyone over time!! (From Aristotle through to Einstein)

3. There is an addition to this quote: “The less you know, the more you think you know”and this takes us directly to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I often find myself smiling whenever I think about the Dunning-Kruger graph. Here’s how the conversation goes in my head:

Dunning Kruger effect“Mmm, I lack confidence as to whether I know….so my doubt must put me towards the ‘expert’ right-hand side of the graph…

…but me thinking this (i.e. being confident) then throws me to the ‘novice’ left-hand side of the graph…

…but then this doubt about whether I actually know anything puts me back over on the….

…oh, never mind where the hell I sit on that bloody graph! Just accept your ignorance, and enjoy continually learning.” 🙂


The “did you just do that?!” analogy

dinner partySo I had a good conversation the other day. I got talking with a most excellent colleague and he used a wonderful analogy.

Before I explain the context, here’s his analogy:

The dinner party

Picture the scene: you live in a nice house in a leafy suburb. The house next door was recently sold and new neighbours have successfully moved in. You invite them around for dinner and they gratefully accept. Nice.

They arrive, offer up an agreeable bottle of wine and a tasty looking box of chocolates. You take their coats, usher them in, show them around the house a bit and are then seated for the meal.

A nice three course dinner ensues, with good conversation amidst a cheery atmosphere. The plates are cleared away and you escort your guests to the lounge whilst you scamper off to the kitchen to make coffees.

You enter the lounge, coffee and chocolates tray in hand, to find one of your guests crouched in the middle of the room, trousers and pants around his ankles, having a shit on your carpet!

So, here’s the thing: What do you say?!!!

Before you waste your breath, consider the following: If your neighbour doesn’t think there’s an issue with what they’ve just done (which, clearly, they don’t)….then what is the point in saying anything at all? What good will it do?

Bringing it back to your work environment:

Okay, so what on earth has this got to do with work? Here goes…

If you work in an organisation in which ‘management’ constantly tell you that ‘we really care about you’, that ‘we want to empower you’, that ‘you are our most important asset’ and ‘together, we are stronger’…and yet then go and do something which is soooo obviously NOT the right thing to do (i.e. goes completely against the rhetoric that they have been playing on a loop) then…what do you say? And what would be the point in saying anything?

They have metaphorically ‘dumped on your carpet’ and they either don’t get it or do, but don’t care. The first is ignorance, the second is arrogance…and, before you assume the ‘frontal assault idiot’ role it would be a good idea to think about which is the case.

To counter ignorance requires education, which will only truly occur through normative learning .

Arrogance, well, that’s a different thing. It brings to mind the rather nice (and widely applicable) quote:

“Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable.” (Denis Waitley)

Can you counter arrogance? You can take the rather hard route of trying to ‘knock them off their perch’ or you can ‘pick up your toys and go play somewhere else’….though, on reflection, most arrogance is likely due to a deeper ignorance.


I find that I can’t help myself from saying something when my ‘neighbour shits on my carpet’. I’m not sure what good it does…but I feel better for saying it.

I take the time and effort to rationally explain my problem with their actions…but fully accept the limitations within.

p.s. I’m going to a dinner party tomorrow night! Don’t worry Jonesy – I’ll be on my best behaviour 🙂