WAYS OF KNOWING: SENSE PERCEPTION
We make sense of the world through eight ways of knowing: language, reason, sense perception, memory, faith, intuition, imagination and emotion. On this page, you will find articles, clips, PowerPoints and TED talks on sense perception as a WOK.
Possible essay question:
- “A map is only useful if it simplifies things.” To what extent does this apply to knowledge? (Specimen 2015)
- “All knowledge depends on the recognition of patterns and anomalies.” Consider the extent to which you agree with this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
- To what extent do ways of knowing prevent us from deluding ourselves? Justify your answer with reference to at least one area of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
- “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
- “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
- “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss. (November 2015)
- “No knowledge can be produced by a single way of knowing.” Discuss. (November 2015)
- “Ways of knowing operate differently in personal and shared knowledge.” Assess this claim. (November 2016)
Our senses: a source of knowledge?
Helen Keller (see picture) was born deaf and blind and lived in complete isolation until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, introduced a 'new language' and a 'new way of knowing' to her. Keller was the first deaf blind woman to earn a Bachelor's degree and she became and author, political activist and lecturer. She claimed that ‘The greatest calamity that can befall people is not that they should be born blind, but rather that they should have eyes and yet fail to see.’ What do you think she meant with these words? Do you agree? According to you, what are the limitations of sense perception as a source of knowledge? Which other ways of knowing should we use in combination with sense perception when acquiring knowledge? This section of the website will explore how people with limited access to the senses 'know'. We will also look at the limitations of sense perception as a source of knowledge, with particular emphasis on sight. Optical illusions and articles on how memory and language influence and alter sense perception highlight the limitations of sense perception as a source of knowledge when it is used in isolation. Philosophers and critical thinkers have been puzzled by the human limitations of gathering knowledge through sense perception for centuries and Plato's cave allegory is perhaps the most well-known example in this field. However, few know about the priesthood training of the Kogu people of the Sierra Nevada. Wade Davis explains in his TED talk on endangered cultures how 'young acolytes are taken away from their families at the age of three and four, sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness in stone huts at the base of glaciers for 18 years.' These acolytes live away from society, with limited access to sense perception as a way of knowing. For this entire time, they are inculturated into the values of their society, values that maintain the proposition that their prayers and their prayers alone maintain the cosmic-- or we might say the ecological-- balance.' Imagine how the young priests feel at 18, when they are taken out of the huts at the end of the initiation period and witness get direct access to the world around hem through their senses. The sensation must be similarly overwhelming to the story of the Jo Milne, the deaf woman who hears for the first time at the age of 40. To read her story, and understand her perspective, click here.
Mike Hobbiss's lecture on sense perception
If you had to give up one of your senses, which one would it be?
Find out how people with partial access to the main senses make sense of their world:
The boy who sees without eyes
Brilliant documentary on a boy who 'sees' without eyes.
The woman who hears for the first time
A woman of 40 hears for the first time thanks to implants. She needs to create a dictionary of sounds and get used to this new sense.
Sense perception and gender
Our senses can guide or misguide us when defining gender, as this extract from 'Thailand's got talent' illustrates. Apart from pointing out the limitations of sense perception as a source of knowledge, it may also lead is to question the notion of gender definition as such. Do you think that gender (not sex) is always a matter of binary oppositions? Are there perhaps more grey areas than our language makes us believe? Do you think that speakers of a language with a gender continuum rather than the notion of 'male versus female' would perceive gender, and the world, differently? What are the implication of the Australian High Court ruling's recognition of a third category?
Article on orchestra for deaf people:
This Guardian article is an interesting real life situation, which could form the basis of knowledge questions. The concept of a deaf orchestra also has some implications. Do we need to be able to hear sounds to appreciate music? How do we know what beauty is? We tend to separate our senses when we search for knowledge, but what about synaesthesia? Can one 'feel sound'/'hear colour'?
How our senses can fool us
Sense perception, language and memory
The lessons on language as a way of knowing (see above) illustrate how language influences sense perception and vice versa. Boroditsky shows in her article 'Lost in Translation' that Russian people tend to distinguish the shades of blue better because they have an extra word for light blue. Conversely, Davis suggests that the Barasana people tend not to distinguish blue from green. Loftus has proved through psychological research that our memory of sense perception is affected by language (see section memory) and the article on the link below illustrates how our memories literally colour what we see.
'Take, for example, this child of a Barasana in the Northwest Amazon, the people of the anaconda who believe that mythologically they came up the milk river from the east in the belly of sacred snakes. Now, this is a people who cognitively do not distinguish the color blue from the color green because the canopy of the heavens is equated to the canopy of the forest upon which the people depend.'
(Wade Davis, TED)
What is really out there?
Most of us rely heavily on the five (or more: see Sense Perception lecture Powerpoint) senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) to make sense of the world. We rarely question the objectivity of these senses (eg: 'Seeing is believing) and often fail to forget that not everybody experiences the world through senses in the same way. Moreover, we tend to forget about the role of the subconscious, the selective nature of the observer and the difficulty human beings experience with distinguishing appearance from reality. To take it one step further, we should also question the limitations of human perception as a source of knowledge of the ultimate reality. Plato described our human position in his cave allegory (see Philosophy page) and one can indeed wonder what is really out there. Philosophers have discussed this topic throughout the ages and theories of perception range from common-sense realism, to scientific realism and phenomenalism. The animated TED talk by Lloyd (see below left) clearly illustrates the extent of which what we know, but is not visible to the eye. It also urges you to explore the limits as well as the strengths of sense perception as a way of knowing. It is worth checking out Theory of Knowledge teacher Mike Hobbis's excellent 'sense perception lecture' (see PowerPoint below). For more general ideas about sense perception within TOK, check out the second PowerPoint (sense perception Lagemaat).
Animated tour of the invisible
John Lloyd takes you in less than 10 minutes through a wealth of 'things' that are out there, but are invisible. Adapted from TED.
The reality beyond matter
What's really out there?