What can I know?

A book I began to read today prods me to write out my own initial answers to a few of Life’s Biggest Questions.  The first of these questions is “What can I know?”  Hmmm…epistemology, right out of the gate!

Interested?  If you are, well, first grab yourself a cup of joe or a beverage more to your liking.  What follows here is my attempt at an answer.

What I can know is, for this instance of an earthbound mammal, potentially broad or deep.   Yet it is highly unlikely that my knowledge about any given subject will be both broad and deep.

Things which fundamentally limit my knowledge are (a) the toolkit with which I experience and interact with other people and my environment and (b) the access I gain to others’ experiences and interactions.  For instance, I have eyes and ears with which I may see and hear, perceive and observe, read and listen to persons, objects, and events which are–actually or virtually–near to me. Various components and functions of my brain are actively involved as I experience and interpret from my particular frame of reference the things about which my senses inform me.

As I read what others have written and said, my capacity to learn about a thing may be stimulated, or I may become more convinced of the value of understandings already embraced.   When I read and listen and watch as other persons write and speak about their viewpoints and understandings, I may free myself from or become yet more entrenched in a set of perceptions and opinions.

My capacity to know more about and to gain understanding of a given thing is filtered through and limited by the information I have previously processed and by what I think I know about that thing–and other things I may relate to it.

Further, my potential for knowing and my experience of my potential is likely framed, to a rather significant extent, by my local, regional, ethnic, and national cultural milieu.  As a lifelong resident of the United States of America, born and raised in the Southeast, I need to check twin tendencies to overrate my knowledge of subjects about which I actually know very little and to underrate my knowledge of subjects about which I assume other persons may well know as much as I.

(A note to the reader: A few of these insights rest on findings first published in 1999 by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, both then of Cornell University, and on research done by others who have challenged and extended Kruger and Dunning’s original findings.)

What can I know?  Well, it depends.    ; )


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