What's the Best Way to Know A Flower?

[Basic concepts: Epistemology.]

Adolph Quetelet, a mathematician of the High Enlightenment, explained with scientific precision how to know when lilacs will bloom (this was about the year 1800). The lilacs, he said, bloom "when the sum of the squares of the mean daily temperature since the last frost added up to (4264C) squared."

So now we know. Whew!

That's one way to put it. This, to me, offers one way to get into the basic concept of what's called epistemology. Perhaps calling it a basic concept is a bit askew, since it is complicated and philosophically thick. But it's interesting, it comes up a lot without elaboration, and it is central to the enterprise of science.

Epistemology is about theories of knowledge, about how we know what we know, and about how knowledge is produced. Depending on your philosophical bent, you might give greater or lesser emphasis to certain of those descriptions. I've approached epistemology as the term that covers the production of knowledge - that is, how do we know stuff? Just how is knowledge produced?

In a post a while back, about the apparent favorite Scienceblog topic (Dawkins and atheism), I'd made mention of "ways of knowing." A few readers replied that such a term begged the question. But there are indeed many ways to know the world. To be sure, some are more culturally credible than others. Take science, for example. Science is our most credible, most reliable means for knowing and then acting in the world. This didn't happen by accident, nor was it immediate. It's taken centuries. It's a complicated historical phenomenon. And, in the twenty-first century (and the 20th, and the 19th), it has left us with the most credible way to know the world. Compare this with, say, astrology, or creationism, or magical thinking, or guessing, or following your hunch, and you can see that these various ways of knowing are not in the same league. (Not even playing the same sport, Vincent, as Jules might say.) But the point is, those different ways of knowing - even if they are different sports, to keep the Pulp Fiction foot-rub analogy alive - are ways of knowing nonetheless. They are forms of knowledge production. It's a separate conversation to then say, well, but those aren't as good.

Epistemology as being about the production of knowledge is thus revealing of larger cultural and social factors. That is the case because we can note how scientific practices have shifted over time. And we can note how they differ in various cultural settings even today. (Anthropologists of science have done excellent work on this: as one quick example, consider that there are differences between high-energy particle physics in Japan and the US. I'll only note here, for the sake of brevity, that the emphasis given to various experimental factors in each setting is different, and for reasons we can uncover by doing more thorough historical and cultural analyses. And I'd recommend Sharon Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes as an entry point into a broader discussion.)

Plus there's this: I'm saying this stuff about knowledge production, about epistemology, as if "scientific epistemology" is one thing. Certainly that isn't true. The ways we practice science today are somewhat different than the ways we practiced it in the past. Which is fine. I'd think that we, as a society, consider our scientific practices better than they used to be. But even now, today, we don't all do it the same way. I won't get farther into this here, but my point is only that even when I say "science is one form of epistemology" I'm being a bit too generic.

Now, back on track: so not only are there different ways of knowing the world, some more credible and reliable than others, but there are different kinds of scientific epistemology. Note too that by asking for credible and reliable knowledge, we are stepping up the game into a discussion of values and motives. So, credible by whose count? And with which forms of persuasion? Reliable for doing what? Reliably producing an answer that is correct? If we don't know what's correct, than that won't get us very far.

Zuska had a wonderful post on the basic concept of feminist philosophy of science. Part of her explanation hit on feminist epistemologies. She quotes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The central concept of feminist epistemology is that of a situated knower, and hence of situated knowledge: knowledge that reflects the particular perspectives of the subject. Feminist philosophers are interested in how gender situates knowing subjects.

Here we get another angle on epistemology as being about the production of knowledge. Feminist epistemologies are not about "what women think" (to play to the most vulgar interpretation of the term). They help us think, rather, about how our knowledge is situated in place and time. They shed light on the means by which we come to know our world, and how who we are has something to say about it. None of this is bad, or out of the ordinary, I hasten to add. None of this denies the importance or power of science. None of this is meant to suggest that science is no more reliable or useful or credible or tied to the natural world than, say, astrology or creationism or magic. But it does highlight that the questions we choose to ask derive from choices we make as scientists, or as communities. It also highlights that how we go about determining the validity of the knowledge we produce also relies upon culturally situated decisions (for example, that falsifiability is the way to give it the go/no-go check - on which, see Janet's basic concept post about falsifiability).

All I'm saying is that there are different ways to know the world, different means for producing knowledge. Epistemology is how philosophers talk about this. It means something more than just "method" - it isn't simply about the procedure one uses, as if the term meant only a list of steps in a process. It is more about how we think, how we structure our ideas, how we approach the world in our studies. Another pre-emptive clarification: epistemology is also not just about representation: that what we know about the world depends on how we represent it. That does have something to do with it, but it is not entirely the same thing (give me one more paragraph and I'll return to this).

So now let me get back to the flowers. How do we know what a flower is? What does it mean to know a licac? Or, further, to know when it will bloom? Take a look back at the top of this post, to Quetelet. Note that his definition above is not useful (and thus not reliable), although it is written with precision and the requisite math of science. For example: We can't know when the last frost is until after the last frost, so it doesn't help us ahead of time.

If I were to go at this through the idea of representation, even given the caveat I just made, we might come to know a flower by how it is represented to us. (I'm led to using representation as my way to discuss epistemology because of our proclivity for visualizing, and, yes, because this is a blog where people look at things and where we often post pictures.) A schematic, or a portrait, or a book definition, or a photograph, or a mathematical equation, or a microscope's view of a leaf. Which of these ways of representing a flower helps us know what the flower is? Which image represents how we know the flower? In each case, we see something different.

Here we have Paul Gaugin:


Lilac Bouquet, 1885 (source)

Here is a section of a leaf:


Here is a botanical diagram of a flower, more generally, labelled as "a typical flower":

i-65334071664da56cd58c23ce66fb3da3-flower sm.jpg(source)

Here is a botanical drawing of lilacs together, not just one, in isolation (and that's interesting too, because you don't find solitary flowers in the real world, yet we generally represent them in isolation):


And here is a photograph:


In then end, all I wanted to suggest was that epistemology is a basic concept that helps us consider how knowledge is produced. It is a concept often taken for granted, or often simplified to mean method or process. But it does point to the diversity of "ways of knowing" that humanity has built as part of our efforts to know and comprehend the world we live in. I used visual representations above to offer a variety of views of the flower. There are more. We might consider a poetic description. We might consider a passage in a novel. Those would provide still different representations of what a flower is. They would allow us to see how the poet or novelist comes to know the flower in a different away. And, to reiterate, it's a different question to ask whether or not those are as valid or useful, as reliable or precise, as what we know about flowers based on scientific epistemologies.

So, how do you know what a flower is?


More like this

Strange how heritage always comes into play. Lilacs, of all flowers you could have chosen!

I was just glancing on the "basic concepts" link to see what people had written about and saw this one. I think I would be a bit stronger than you have been in discussing the distinction between "scientific ways of knowing" and astrological ones or whatever. Rather than just saying that the astrological one is "not in the same league", I'd argue that it isn't even a way of knowing. After all, it seems that we generally think that something doesn't count as knowledge unless it's true, and isn't just a totally random guess. (Perhaps this is a place on which philosophers are out of step with ordinary usage, but I think that most ordinary users would agree with these points on some slight amount of reflection.) And if those criteria are right, then it disqualifies most of the things listed there as "ways of knowing".

I think traditionally, epistemologists assume that there is only one "way of knowing" (presumable involving justification of ones beliefs, as well as their truth, and some other factors), and that science is just a particular application of these principles. But feminist epistemology (and some other research programs) challenge this view and say there are multiple ways of knowing. If that's right, then maybe there's room for saying that science is a separate "way of knowing". But that would seem to me to be a controversial claim.

Gaugin thought he was painting lilacs, and what he painted looks like lilacs to me, but what do I know? Maybe he was painting (rather badly) some exotic new (in 1885) plant that he didn't know. You can probably rule out such a possibility for the photograph, especially if you are a botanist; but even then, could you tell a lilac from an alien stick-insect? You know nothing about whether or not the latter exist (presumably), how widespread they are (if they exist), how much they resemble lilacs (if they exist), how likely they are to have been carried here by UFOs (if they exist), etc., so how could you?

The basic epistemological question is, do you know a lilac when you see one?

Is the answer 'Yes' because you can till lilacs from other plants (and non-plants of course, although maybe not in the case of a very good artificial lilac) that do crop up? But suppose our alien stick-insects do crop up a lot (which is possible, and who knows how unlikely it is); do you then not know lilacs? (Our word 'lilac' excludes insects, of course.)

Before you say that you still would, consider a child who knows lilacs: she can tell them apart from the other plants in her garden (and plants from non-plants, etc.). 'She knows lilacs' her family say. But if she calls any similar flower a lilac too, we would say that she did not really know lilacs. So suppose that we discover that some of the flowers, which she calls 'lilacs', are not lilacs. Do we say that she does not know lilacs (at least not properly, not until we teach her the difference)? And what if it is only possible (and not known to be unlikely) that some are not lilacs? It seems that it would then be possible (and not unlikely) that she does not know lilacs: if one asks, 'Does she know lilacs?' the answer should be 'I don't know'.

So, do you know a lilac when you see one?

I liked your way of introducing the concept of epistemology. your: "not only are there different ways of knowing the world, some more credible and reliable than others [...] there are different kinds of scientific epistemology [...] by asking for credible and reliable knowledge, we are stepping up the game into a discussion of values and motives." I just thought that a basic post could include Cartesian scepticism (whose resolution ought to be an increased awareness of just how varied are our ways of knowing the world).

My point of interest, to follow your reply, Enigman, is: what is it that you know when you say you know the lilac?

If I recognize you at a party, after having come across your picture on the web, and then I walk up and say, "I know you." Would you agree that I indeed know you? What is it I know about you?

You have the true belief that the person before you, BRC, at this hypothetical party (the sort I usually find myself at), is the same Enigman of the website photos, and so once I confirm that you do indeed know me, then you know that true proposition. You also know something of how the impressions that those photos gave you were incorrect (which is why you would agree that you only knew it was me once I had confirmed your belief), and new stuff about me via my body language, etc. Much of what you know will be pre-propositional, i.e. such stuff as we form our true propositional beliefs from, but which we know (rather than merely believe correctly) because we know it relatively directly. (I'm quite interested in what can be said pre-theoretically, if analogically, about those pre-propositional kinds.) Anyway, we get to know each other, at this party, and later, and become quite good friends. Then one day I do something extraordinarily out of character (out of the box you've assigned me to) and disappear forever, and you say to a colleague, 'I guess I never really knew Enigman'; so, what do you know? Smell you later...