What is Knowledge?

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To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark. ― Victor Hugo

What is the difference between knowledge and instinct?

Matt Webb is I believe the author of many of the following thoughts on Innate Knowledge.


Definitions of Innate Knowledge

To Build a Fire by Jack London is used to illustrate the differences between knowledge and instinct. The story is reproduced here.

Is there such a concept as innate knowledge?

Concepts, ideas, capabilities and knowledge which we have at birth are said to be innate.

Definition of INNATE form Merriam Webster Dictionary

  • 1: existing in, belonging to, or determined by factors present in an individual from birth : native, inborn <innate behavior>
  • 2: belonging to the essential nature of something : inherent
  • 3: originating in or derived from the mind or the constitution of the intellect rather than from experience
    • in·nate·ly adverb
    • in·nate·ness noun

innātus m (feminine innāta, neuter innātum); first/second declension - Arisen, originated in, having arisen or originated in; innate, inborn, inherent, natural, native.


Innate Knowledge or Ideas

The presence or absence of innate capabilities raise many philosophical questions of epistemology, nature and nurture, species variability, evolutionary trends, morality and psychology.

Are there some relatively sound conclusions that can be drawn?

Innate capabilities, especially the capability to learn, almost certainly exist at birth. This has been shown in countless empirical studies - babies who turn to face a sound immediately after being born, or reaching out to an image or object before them - which all indicate that we are born with innate curiosity and the capability and desire to learn.

This can also be argued logically. In order to learn anything, we must first have at least the capability of learning, otherwise not even the first thing can be learned. It is not logically possible to learn through experience the capability of learning.

The question asks directly of 'knowledge', and this also includes 'ideas' that can or cannot be innate. Innate ideas, at first glance, seem to be far more likely than innate knowledge, as ideas are abstract, whereas the word 'knowledge' seems to imply some sort of fact. The use of the word 'knowledge' in the question shall be taken in its vaguest possible sense, however, in order to include ideas. For example, it is possible to say that when someone has the idea of a square, they posses knowledge of the properties of a square, upon which the idea is based - in other words, they know what a square is.

There are two methods that can be employed to investigate the existence of innate knowledge - looking at empirical evidence or using rational induction starting from what we can understand about knowledge. Locke used empirical evidence to come to the conclusion that the is no innate knowledge. His arguments are mainly negative, the reason for which is that he was determined to argue against what was seen as accepted in his day - that innate knowledge was required for religion and morality. Locke shows with his evidence that there is no reason for a belief in innate knowledge's existence, although through negative argument his conclusion can not be strong. The weakness of the argument can be shown in the weakness of the objection.

Leibniz, a rationalist, used the analogy of a sculpture to argue against Locke's simplistic view of the developing mind. A sculptor is carving a statue of Hercules out of a block of marble - in Locke's world, the marble is unblemished throughout, and the block has the potential of yielding any statue, but the sculptor creates Hercules. In Leibniz's world, the marble is veined, and the veins are in such a formation to encourage the creation of Hercules - the marble is predisposed to Hercules' statue as opposed to any other. Leibniz argues, that like the marble, the mind predisposed to certain ideas and information, it just requires experience and reason to uncover and refine them, as the sculptor would carve and polish Hercules. He also argues that these predispositions are responsible for our being able to have knowledge of necessary truths, and to know that they hold universally. Locke would argue that this can be arrived at through reason, but, since his argument rests on empirical evidence, can not be sure of any conclusion.


More recently, a similar argument has taken place, except the roles are reversed. Chomsky has used empirical evidence to argue that we must have innate knowledge. His argument stems from his field of linguistics. Looking at evidence such as the ease with which children learn language, the irrelevance of IQ to the ability to initially learn to speak and various 'linguistic universals', constants across all languages, Chomsky argues that there must be an innate knowledge of basic language. Opponents of this view simply state that none of his evidence points conclusively towards the existence of innate knowledge, as none of it is simply inconsistent with general intelligence, in other words reason and the propensity to learn. Chomsky's argument in a nutshell is that, since languages are so complex, there must be something helping a child to understand it. Critics such as Hilary Putnam oppose this view, and point out that none of his evidence is proof of innate knowledge.


Up till this point, only arguments that are based on empirical evidence, those of Locke and Chomsky have been investigated. These are attempts to answer the question posed - is there innate knowledge. So far, the only conclusive point has been the initial statement, that we must have the capability to learn, but a capability does not imply knowledge, although it does imply an ability to reason. There is no definite empirical evidence to show that we have innate knowledge. Another question can be posed, that bypasses the problems associated with empirical investigation, that of is innate knowledge possible - could there be innate knowledge. This question requires examining the definition of knowledge to see if it is logically possible that we could be innate knowledge.


Knowledge is a mental state in which a true fact is represented. I 'know' that this table is before me. It is possible to show two kinds of knowledge, strong and weak. 'Strong' knowledge is that which can be authoritatively stated, knowledge of which we are immediately justified. A certain fact has directly caused the knowledge in our mind. The chair being below me now is an example of strong knowledge. The weaker type of knowledge is a kind of justified true belief. Most examples of this are historical knowledge - I know that the last king of France was beheaded. My stating that I know means that my belief in this fact is justified through reliable sources to cause of the fact, and that the fact is true. In order to address the question of innate knowledge, we must see how this view of knowledge fits with the possibility of innate knowledge.


It is impossible for any sort of innate knowledge to fall into the strong category. It is not possible for us to have innate knowledge that is completely unquestionable. It is conceivable, however, that we have innate beliefs, and that the belief should turn out to be true and justifiable, and so could be called 'weak' knowledge. In that case, however, it would be incorrect to say that the person has been born with knowledge. They have been born with a belief that has turned out to be knowledge. The innateness is not in the knowledge, as whether or not the belief is knowledge or not is only decided after experience and reason has either confirmed or dismissed the belief.


It would seem that from the above argument there is no innate knowledge as such, only the capacity to reason and learn. The final point, however, does raise one question, although it does not reflect much more than philosophical pedantry. If it is possible for innate belief, then arguably it is possible that one can know that one believes something. This only shows that the possible innate belief is of no use, but just a process of reason. It has been said that 'Nature has not given knowledge, but the seeds of knowledge.' From the above argument, a more accurate analogy would be 'Nature has not given the seeds of knowledge, but an area of fertile soil, and instructions on how to grow it.'



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