How do people, cultures, and governments come to “know” things?  Is it through history? Science? Culture? Ideology? Education? In fact, the factors are multiple, and they vary from epoch to epoch, and country to country.  But knowledge is never just knowledge.  It is not a free-floating Platonic idea, unaffected and eternal no matter what happens “out there.”  What we know always depends on context, and it is only when we are aware of the contexts within which knowledge claims are made that we can understand how something is known and what is at stake in that knowledge.

Science, for example, knows many truths, but they are dependent on the nature of the machines we measure with, the history of ideas, and even such factors as disparate authority among scientists—how readily is the work of younger scientists absorbed?  Politically, one might lay claim to the truth that democracy is the best form of governments and that human rights apply to individual humans—but do we truly know this, or are we embedded in ideology and history?   Is the model of self-understanding in psychology true?  Then how is it that the discovery of prehistoric bones impacted not only our view of religion, but also, in suggesting a buried past, stimulated Freud to create a model of selfhood based on uncovering layers of the self?   And so on. Every culture has such moments where a discipline or a point of view emerges out of a confluence of factors—some entirely accidental—and then becomes a form of knowing.  And we in the 21st century are in the grip of those factors too, although like every other time and culture we will insist that what we know is true. 

It is the mission of the Institute to understand how these processes work: how knowledge becomes legitimized and then may or may not lose its claim to truth.  Thomas Kuhn did this for the sciences, and Foucault for the social sciences and humanities, both in controversial works.  But instead of pointing out the faults of these two great thinkers, we might ask how these categories (science, social science, humanities) got created in the first place. 

If we can just let go of truth, we are free to ask:  what makes our knowledge knowledge?  This is the mission of the Institute on the formation of knowledge.

What are the criteria we use to decide something is knowledge?

Oxford. Photo by Ada Palmer.