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At its core, knowledge is truth, meaning that it conforms with reality. Though this may appear straight forward, there are widely divergent philosophical views of 'knowledge' and 'reality.'

""Knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection. It is a high-value form of information that is ready to apply to decisions and actions."" -- Davenport, 1998

Philosophical views of knowledge -- (Stacey, 2003, pp 18-21)
Descartes -- Descartes suggested that human minds are 'thinking things' and all we can be sure of is our own individual capacity to doubt. Everything is to be subjected to doubt and it is in this rational process of doubting that humans can come to know themselves and their world. This rational process, with its foundation, or starting point anchored in 'truth', is foundational to the scientific method which is most associated with Newton and is running strong to this day.

Scientific method -- Central to the scientific method is the individual scientist who objectively observes nature, formulates hypotheses about the laws governing it and then tests these laws against quantified data, so progressively moving towards a fuller and more accurate understanding of the laws. These laws were understood to take the form of universal, timeless, deterministic, linear `if-then' causal links. For example, if twice as much force is applied to an object in a vacuum then it will move twice as far.

Leibniz -- The consequence of this Scientific Revolution, extending over more than a century, was that people in the West had come to experience themselves as autonomous individuals with a non-corporeal mind inside them, taking the form of internal worlds consisting of representations of the external world. This view of how people experienced themselves was concisely formulated in the philosophy of Leibniz. He saw individuals as windowless monads who internally represented external worlds, perceived both consciously and unconsciously, and related to each other across an existential gulf.

Truth of reality problem -- However, this way of thinking posed fundamental questions. First, the question arose as to how reasoning individuals were able to formulate hypotheses, involving the categorisation of phenomena in nature and the identification of relationships between them. For the realists, the answer lay in the nature of reality. There was no problem about knowing because our bodies simply perceived reality as it was through the senses. For others, however, there was a problem about knowing that needed explanation. Descartes and Leibniz dealt with the problem by arguing that the mind contained innate ideas through which it recognised clear, distinct truths about the real external world. In other words, there is nothing problematic about knowing: external reality exists and we directly know it because we are born with minds having the capacity for knowing reality.

Locke's skepticism -- However, Locke took a more skeptical position and argued that the mind had no innate ideas of reality but was initially a blank tablet waiting for experience to write upon it in the form of sensory impressions that represent external, material objects. The question then became how we could know that mental representations correspond to reality.

Hume's radical skepticism -- Writing around the middle of the eighteenth century, Hume took a radically skeptical position and said that the mind imposes an order of its own on the sensations coming from the external real world but this order is simply an association of ideas, a habit of human imagination through which it assumes causal connections. There is nothing innate about knowing and the causal connections we postulate are simply the accidents of repeated connections in the mind. Ideas result from connections in experience, not from an independent reality, and intelligibility reflects habits of mind, not the nature of reality. Hume claimed that there was no necessary order to our ideas other than the ways they were combined in our minds according to habit and the laws of association.

With this radically skeptical argument, Hume threw into doubt the Enlightenment idea that reason could unaided discover the order of the real world. As a result the philosophy of Descartes, Leibniz and Locke no longer seemed to provide a firm foundation for science. Skepticism, with its conclusion about the relativity and unreliability of knowledge, threatened the very basis of science. This debate between the dogmatic rationalists, or realist scientists, and the radical skeptics about the nature of human knowledge is much the same as the much more recent debate between modernist science and postmodernism. In both cases science posits the existence of a unitary reality that can be reliably observed as truth, while radical skepticism/postmodernism points to the constructed, relative and plural nature of accounts of the world in which there is no truth, only many different 'stories' with none necessarily better than any other.

Another fundamental question posed by the Scientific Revolution had to do with human freedom and choice. Since humans were part of nature they had to be subject to its deterministic laws but if they were, then it followed that they could not be free.

Kant's origination of systems thinking --
These two questions, one to do with the nature of human knowing and the other to do with the possibility of human choice, were taken up by the philosopher Kant. Systems thinking can be said to have originated in Kant's answers to these questions.

Kant's dualistic answer to the first question --
Kant's answer as to how reasoning individuals were able to formulate hypotheses, involving the categorisation of phenomena in nature and the identification of relationships between them -- Kant was greatly impressed by the advances in human knowledge brought about by the scientific method but he also recognised that it was not sufficient to simply dogmatically postulate that we know reality directly. He accepted that we know what we know through sensations coming from the real world and that the mind imposes some kind of order on this sense data so that we cannot know reality in a direct manner. He therefore postulated a dualism. On the one hand there was reality, which he called noumenal, and on the other hand, there was the appearance of reality to us in the form of sensations, which he called phenomenal. He argued that we could never know reality in itself, the noumenal, but only the appearance of reality as sensation, the phenomenal. This bears some similarity to the position of the radical skeptics but Kant departed from them when he held that our inability to know reality itself does not mean that all our knowledge is purely relative, simply the result of habits of association. Instead, the mind consists of innate categories which impose order on the phenomenal.

In this way he agreed with the radical skeptics in holding that we could not know reality directly but also agreed with the scientific realists in holding that there were innate ideas that imposed order on experience so that knowledge and truth were not simply relative. Examples of the innate categories of mind are time, space, causal links and what Kant called 'regulative ideas'. Regulative ideas are to be distinguished from constitutive ideas. A constitutive idea, or hypothesis, is a statement of what actually happens in reality. For example if we say that an organisation actually is a system operating to fulfill some real purpose, then we are putting forward a constitutive idea. We are saying that the organisation really exists and it is really fulfilling some real purpose. However, if we put forward an hypothesis in which we are thinking about an organisation 'as if' it were a system operating 'as if' it had a purpose, then we are thinking in terms of regulative ideas. Obviously Kant would not talk about constitutive ideas because he held that we could never know reality in itself. The activity of the scientist then becomes clear in Kant's scheme of things. The scientist has a mind consisting of categories of time, space, causal links and the capacity for forming 'as if' hypotheses, which enable him or her to formulate hypotheses about the appearances of reality and then test them.

Kant's dualistic thinking satisfies Aristotelian logic --
Scientists, such as Newton and Leibniz, had understood nature in mechanistic terms and Kant was able to explain why this understanding was neither purely relative nor directly revealing of the reality of nature. He resolved the contradiction between realist and relative knowledge by taking aspects from each argument and holding them together in the 'both . . . and' way of a dualism. Knowledge of appearances was real and reliable while knowledge of reality itself was indeed impossible. In a sense both the scientific realists and the radical skeptics had a point and the contradictions between them could be eliminated by locating their conflicting explanations in different realms. This is typical of Kant's dualistic thinking in which paradoxes are eliminated so satisfying the rule of Aristotelian logic according to which paradox, the simultaneous existence of two contradictory ideas, is a sign of faulty thinking. I want to stress this key aspect of Kantian thinking because it has become very widespread in the West. The ideas of figure and ground, of different lenses through which to understand the world, and different levels of existence, are examples of this.

Kant's answer to the second question --
Kant's answer to the supposition that humans could not be free because they are part of nature is resolved by removing people from nature and classifying humans as autonomous, able to choose the goals of their actions and they can choose the actions required to realise them. See Kantian systems philosophy for further information. (Stacey, 2003, pp 23)

Kant's justification of the scientific method --
Kant, then, developed transcendental idealism as an alternative to realism, on the one hand, and skepticism, on the other. His thinking can be labeled as idealism because he held that we know reality through the capacities of the mind and it is transcendental because the categories through which we know are given outside our direct experience. In this way, Kant provided a sophisticated justification for the scientific method.

Kantian knowledge -- (Malik, 2000, pp 72)
In Kantianism, knowledge is not absolute, as in absolute knowledge of the world, because knowledge is in part created by the mind. One can never know the world as it is. Empirical knowledge conveys information, not about things as they really are but only as they were perceived as phenomena by the human observer, who impose their intuitive structures, such as time and space, which are not elements of reality.

Reason, in Kant's case is transcendental or universal, common to all humans, though made manifest through activity of individuals. This reason comes from the creator of the world. Hence, human intuition could form the basis of true, objective knowledge.

Knowledge vs. ethics --
Kant distinguished between knowledge and ethics. See ethics.

Subject and object of knowledge --

Kantianism - Kant's idea of pure reason holds that any of the three undemonstrable entities (a personal soul, a cosmos, and a supreme being) implicit in the fact of a subject and an object of knowledge, and in the need for some principle uniting them. The subject is the agent doing the examination of an object. The object is the thing in question, the situation, the phenomenon being examined.

Alone amongst terrestrial matter humans are both subject and object.

See phenomenon, noumenon, and reason.

Knowledge and Intelligence -- Generally, knowledge is defined as the skills, facts, and information acquired through experience and education. It includes both the theoretical and practical understanding of the subject.

Depending on the context and the author, the term knowledge is defined various ways. One is to describe all types of accumulated learning and multiple levels of intelligence. The other is to describe learning that results in ""know-how"", whereas the term understanding refers to a higher level of intelligence, the learning that results in answering ""why"" questions. Systems theorists tend to favor the later definition. In this case, knowledge is associated with analysis. Analysis yields knowledge.

Russell L. Ackoff's view of knowledge --

Knowledge answers ""how"" questions. Knowledge is contained in instructions. It consists of know-how, for example, knowing how a system works or how to make it work in a desired way, and it makes maintenance and control of objects, systems, and events possible. To control something is to make it work or behave efficiently for an intended end. Knowledge enables us to describe.

Intelligence hierarchy --
Consistent with Ackoff's definition of knowledge is the intelligence hierarchy, which categorizes knowledge as a level of intelligence between noise and wisdom. This categorization serves to bring an awareness of what can be described as 'levels of knowledge' or 'levels of intelligence.' These levels, whatever they might be called, have significance to the realm of strategic management, especially decision making and learning.

Types of knowledge --

  • syntactic knowledge -- pertains to grammar and structure
  • pragmatic knowledge -- relates to the context within which learning takes place
  • semantic knowledge -- relates to the meanings of words and symbols

See: James F. Courtney, David T. Croasdell, and David B. Paradice, Inquiring Organizations, Australian Journal of Information Systems Sept 14, 1998

Knowledge is also classified as tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.