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Perspective on knowledge: Knowledge is a tool

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I didn’t intend to, but I’ve become a pragmatist. Unfortunately, not in the sense of being tethered to reality, but in the philosophical sense in which knowledge is not a body of true statements but is a tool we use to get things done.

There are, of course, some collections of true statements that are very useful. If I want to know the population of Boise, Idaho, an almanac is a source of knowledge as true statements, as is Google. But of all the things to know in the world, why do I want to know Boise’s population? Perhaps it’s because I’m thinking of moving there and the size of the population lets me make some inferences—quite probably false—about the types of life that are lived there. Or perhaps I am considering opening up a specialty tea store that needs a large population to be feasible. Or perhaps I’m researching correlations between population and water usage to find the most effective places to start installing my water conservation breakthrough. So even this archetypal collection of true statements—an almanac—is itself a tool for accomplishing a purpose.

You can’t shut the lid

For knowledge managers this means that the first question to ask before building a knowledge repository is: What are we trying to do? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, for knowledge isn’t a tool exactly the same way a hammer or a sewing machine is. If you’re going to build a bird house, you need a hammer. If you’re going to sew a Halloween costume, you need a sewing machine. If you’re going to become the global leader in water conservation technology, there’s some knowledge you know you need, but there’s far more knowledge you don’t know you’ll need. So, you can’t build a knowledge tool box and shut the lid. You also need means by which you can find the knowledge you didn’t know was out there and that you may not yet need. Open knowledge networks are one important way to do this. Before long, machine learning will be another standard way of doing so.

But that does not change the fact that knowledge is a tool.

Understanding knowledge

Are you underwhelmed by this thought? That by itself is actually pretty astounding. The idea that knowledge is not dependent on our concerns, that knowledge is an accurate representation of the world, has been with us since the literal inception of knowledge as a category of belief 2,500 years ago. Philosophical pragmatism is only about 100 years old, depending where you want to start and has only gained a foothold in the everyday understanding of knowledge in the past couple of decades.

As with any change of this magnitude, the causes are many and intricately related. I want to point to just one: models.

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