Knowledge & Culture: Is perception the only form of knowledge?

Epistemology or the Theory of Knowledge is a key thread running through Western philosophical history and inquiry, examining what is reality, how we humans sense and perceive the world, and what is or may be certain and uncertain. Discourse has been a core component to the spirit of philosophy and is ongoing. In this essay, I’ll explore some important tenets of that discussion, beginning with Plato and Aristotle and ending on modern insight into language, science (from the latin ‘scientia’ referring to the results of logical demonstrations that revealed general and necessary truths) and environmental challenges. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that perception is not the only source of knowledge, though it is inherent.

If we deem knowledge to encompass that which passes the truth condition (after Alfred Tarski), we need to be able to justify or prove any claim to that knowledge being fact. In gathering the evidence to justify truth, is it not enough that we use perception to discern knowledge. Perception is part of the process, in that it is the action of the mind to reference objects or subjects via the senses, but it does not necessarily always equate to knowledge.

By the nature of such inquiry, our lives are enriched by the process and, importantly, by the consequences of those conclusions. What we are able to know about our own existence, the existence of the world and beyond helps us understand our place here on Earth and how we interact with environment, with each other and to all other life.

Scientific knowledge is the foundation upon which we may make decisions based on evidence, in our personal lives and in our role in society. Space, time, causality, justice and love are all subjects that have been explored in philosophical history and these metaphysical considerations will always be important contextually in epistemology.

Language is crucial, for it is in our communications that we are able to learn, discuss, critique and even imagine constituents and concepts of knowledge with varying degrees of cogency. What we don’t know, or have not accumulated, is catalyst for further scientific inquiry, ethical or political decisions and changes thereafter.

Perception and trust

Whether one perceives the realities of the world directly or indirectly, perception begins with biological sense-organs registering environmental objects and subjects. The brain collects and stores this sense-data. Only afterwards can the experiences be relativised through memories, dreams, hallucinations or reactive behaviour.

Consider our sense organs for sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. These organs and their brain connections are not uniformly functional across individual members of the human race. Differences may exist between each individual on how we perceive or are aware of both ourselves and any external reality. Further, internal perceptions including memories, emotions and moods, can prejudice our external perceptions of things or concepts.

How do we store this sense data as retrievable information? If we trust our intuition, perhaps Qualia (or subconscious subjectivity), will dominate our senses of reality. Sometimes instinct is fundamental to survival in threatening situations. But in non-survival situations, if we organise our experiences spatially within our consciousness, we may be able to apply principles of reason and logic – rationalism.

Storing of memories may similarly prove unreliable or distorted, subject to environmental and cultural variations, for example. And It is not without reason that reason itself is susceptible to altering states, as Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests,

‘But what men consider reasonable or unreasonable alters’.

What appears consistent in the garnering of knowledge or truth is the sifting of uncertainty, perhaps seeking its lowest degree, and the formulation of the generic based on justification. By studying the work of a few key philosophers, we can follow their views on the extent to which perception constitutes knowledge.

Plato’s perfect reality and Aristotle’s experience.

Plato, along with Socrates, believed in an eternal reality or realm, which can be deformed by experience and then revealed to us through life as something that is remembered. For example, justice exists in all its glory in the eternal realm but here on Earth we may only see examples of things that may be just. These general realities with essential features were named ‘Forms.’ To Plato, what made a tree a tree is a description of a collection of essences, and the ultimate form was one that is ‘good’. ‘Good’ may be analogous to the light from the Sun, or an eternal light which may or not be ‘God.’ So the ultimate tree is God. If one agrees that universals are reality, then one is a Realist.

Aristotle conversely concentrated on ‘experience’ and beyond, categorising empirical investigation, which together with instrumental Islamic developments in mathematics and astronomy, evolved into modern science. He agreed there was a need to classify things but claimed that true knowledge of the world is obtained via the senses. If one agrees that universals are only names of collections of individuals, then one is a Nominalist.

In an era of Hellenistic religion, Aristotle radically implied that the acquisition of knowledge could be placed back into the hands of humans as opposed to their being some higher truth an order of magnitude above. Aristotle’s Third Man argument demonstrates that each ultimate form of ‘man’ becomes, by his very nature, classified as a ‘man’. A higher form must then be envisioned, ad infinitum. The question arises, why would there be a need for an ultimate form of man? Surely, experiencing ‘man’ here on Earth should provide us with all the understanding we need.

Aristotle’s work on metaphysical causality precipitated many areas of thought, such as the philosophy of religion and of Natural Law. He offered up a sense of everything having a beginning, middle and an end, like a story; from matter, to category, to cause, and not least to Telos or final purpose. One could say he was a philosopher of the individual over the universal.

Rationalism and Empiricism

Much later, during the Renaissance period, Descartes and Leibniz represented the Rationalist view where ‘mind’ is the primary force and ‘sense’ is the secondary. Hume, Berkeley and Locke represented the Empiricist view whereby all knowledge may be based on sensation. There were other key figures who’s contributions are worth noting.

Descartes asked what can he be certain of, putting epistemology at the heart of academic philosophy. He would not trust either his own senses or logic. He was only confident that he was thinking. Indeed, he even felt that this existential doubt proved the existence of his mind.

‘Cogito ergo sum,’ (I think, therefore, I am) is Descartes’ iconic statement of 1632.

Everything was open to challenge bar the existence of his own mind. Descartes essentially wiped the epistemological slate clean, encouraging others after him to fathom how to narrow those uncertainties. Rather like Socrates in the end concluding he knew nothing, Descartes’ concluded he knew nothing other than that his own thoughts existed. This acute scepticism of reality re-shaped philosophical thought.

Gottfried Leibniz claimed that if we look at all things, they are infinitely sub divisible to mental existence only. He named the mental existence of everything ‘monads’, a theory still relevant in modern particle physics. Discussion continues on the difference between free-will and determination at subatomic levels, for example in David Skrbina’s philosophical work on Panpsychism, where he advocates all things possess mind.

Metaphysically, what is more real, the whole or the constituents of the whole? Subatomic particles or the universe? Is the concept of ‘justice’, say, more real/relevant, than the specific examples of just outcomes? The Communitarian philosophy discussed by Michael Sandel, for instance, asserts that the individual and the collective inform one another and that an individual cannot live in complete isolation from the larger cultural environment. We may surmise, therefore, that an instance of justice cannot be isolated from a greater concept. The cosmologist, George Ellis, outlines limitations of Cartesian reductionism, whereby body is machine and mind is separate. Foundational particle physics is not able to explain for what purpose we exist. To Ellis, in such complex hierarchies of existence, there must be top-down causality as well as bottom-up: An interchange.

‘Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics ‘theory of everything’, this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the out-comes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us’. George Ellis (2005)

There must be a reality beyond the senses and the sensory organs (or extended tools such as scientific instruments), and a reality beyond the qualities of human faculty. Perception is not all.

John Locke’s essay, ‘Concerning Human Understanding’ looked at Descartes’ mind/body dualism and concluded very differently. For Locke, there is no innateness, only comprehension through experience. His detailed look at qualities of faculty sought to show how the realities of space and time are there waiting for us to perceive them. Locke identifies primary material or objective qualities including solidity, extension, motion, number and then secondary qualities including taste, sound and colour, and so on. He did agree with Descartes that substance itself is unknowable. Later, Immanuel Kant made the radical distinction between noumena, things as they are in themselves, and phenomena, the things as we perceive them.

And, of course, if we compare all life here on Earth, one same thing would be perceived in a multiplicity of ways in diversity of life. A wolf and a hawk have evolved to sense their habitats and ecosystems in different ways, and perhaps interpret things differently also, like the concept of time.

Could we be less sceptical by being more accepting of our own sense data? A highly intuitive person may well agree, but human progress would fall short if this was all we could rely upon. That is not to say sense data is unimportant. I would argue that sense perception of the environment is one of the key strategies in reconnecting people and nature.

‘There is an intimate reciprocity of the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us…’ (David Abram, 1996)

This reconnection is imperative given the state of nature and our reliance upon functioning ecosystems. But sense-data is not all and we shouldn’t be limited to it alone. For instance, the role of imagination is mainspring in setting out goals and ethical realities.

In the writings of Bishop Berkeley, we see the rise of metaphysical idealism. Like Locke, he was an empiricist but extreme, in that he believed the only single substance which constitutes the universe is mind or thought rather than matter.

Esse estaut perciperi aug percipi: to be is ‘to perceive’ or ‘to be perceived’.

Further, Berkeley concluded that the exercise of the will is the only volitional cause in the world. Things simply may not exist if we cannot perceive them, if it were not for God perceiving everything of course. So what if God does not exist?

By contrast, look next at Bertrand Russell’s work, a dominant force in Anglo-US philosophy during the 20th Century. He said sense perceptions are different to our perceiving them. We infer and we make inference. But objects are ‘ongoing’ without our perceiving them. So there is existence without observation.

One could view similarly an inherent axiological code. It does not equate that an unseen object or life form does not have intrinsic value even if no human perceives its existence, or even cares: an unclassified deep sea fish, an unhappy society or a nugget of gold in a far away mountain stream. If we cannot perceive these things it does not follow that they do not exist. Berkeley’s reliance on the existence of God to perceive all is simply inadequate.

Thankfully, Russell gives credence to an objective, external world with appearance and reality. If we reject such a metaphysical world, then all we have left is disorderly, incoherent experiences.
Providing the evidence – Hume

When we look at the empiricism of David Hume, we see a sophisticated criticism of Cartesian rationalism in ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ and a new form of scepticism. Simultaneously, the nature of knowledge moves another step away from mere perception.

Using precise language, Hume argued against the contention that we are all born with innate ideas. He made an important distinction between analytic (or “demonstrative”) statements and those which are synthetic (or “probable”). Analytic statements are self-evident, logically consistent, known to show a relationship between ideas. One could describe such statements as propositional knowledge, fact, demonstrative, or a priori (before experience). Synthetic statements are descriptions of fact known only from experience (a posteriori). These may still be uncertain, but depend upon empirical evidence. In Hume’s Fork, we find a simple test for whether a statement is based on experience or logic.

Hume’s Fork is the classification of any statement as either demonstrative or probable: Self-evidently/logically true or known only from experience. If a statement is neither of these, we can not know whether it is true or false. A difficulty arises applying Hume’s Fork to what may be generally true, or true in the future, which is the realm of induction, which may be the basis for Scientific Method.

Demonstrative (logical) facts will always be true, but experience-based truth may not be provably true going forwards: Just because the sun has always risen in the morning does not prove it will rise tomorrow. Causality too must be proven.

Hume thus makes exceptions because of the limitations of the Fork. Inferring generics from past experience or recognising patterns may not be provable by Hume’s Fork as propositional, but it is customary to humans and is useful in any Scientific Method. In the strictest sense, Hume’s empiricism places ‘as is’ before ‘what could be’ which, once again, excludes functions such as design or imagination in both our personal and societal lives. These questions do not account for things that do not rely on pure fact and/or logic, like the claims of morality, axiology and spirituality.

‘In our reasonings concerning fact, there are imaginable degrees of assurance from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man therefore proportions his belief to the evidence’, David Hume (1748)

Hume’s work shows the limitations of rationalism in its disconnect with inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is the formulation of a concept based upon a foundation of a number of facts, whereas deductive reasoning is a top down search for facts in support of a concept. Either way, Hume points out that no hypothesis, therefore, is certain. Inference is customary for humans and exemplified by the Scientific Method and the creation of testable hypotheses. Repetition leads to ‘acceptance’ of natural laws, which may not necessarily be universal. Hume viewed this as a problem of mental habit, but nonetheless useful.

To Hume, the external world cannot be proven but the constancy and coherence of our experiences leads us to the ‘idea’ of its existence. Assumptions and predictability plus inherent experience are all we can know. Hume referenced this ‘custom’ as a ‘guide in life’ although asserted that invariability and linkage between cause and effect should be backed up by evidence.

Though an empiricist at heart, problematically, Hume’s ‘Custom as Guide’ legitimised belief systems and conditioning. More recently, via psychological investigations on cognitive biases by Kahneman and Tversky we are able to exemplify some of the most heuristic failings in prevailing customs and experience, such as in medical diagnosis or jury trials and at a societal level, in going to war, tackling poverty and climate change, for instance. Custom and experience may prove a useful model for education, but unhelpful in any public acceptance of non-intuitive scientific findings or ‘paradigm shifts’ in the search for truth (as I discuss later).

Kant’s response

Kant sought to directly reconcile Hume’s problem of unproven impressions and empiricism with common sense and scientific findings. His Copernican Revolution argued that individual experience is essentially a human trait via our means of perception and he divided sense-data or Phenomena, from the intrinsic world or Noumena. For him, space, time and causality are human mental apparatus for decoding or interpreting sense data. Our knowledge is shaped by this apparatus.

Before the advancement of neuroscience and the invention of motion picture film, Kant recognised that our minds record things that occur in sequences over time. For example, we may witness a hare running across a field. Because the hare also runs through a period of time, our brains remember an order of sequence to make sense of what just occurred. If we access our memory, we can re-observe the hare running in a series of frames from a similar point of perspective.

Remarkably for the eighteenth century, Kant asserted that the human mind works this way, and is integral to the nature of knowledge. Of course, our memories may fail and so we still need to justify matters of fact by supplying evidence. Now we might be able to playback video footage of the hare in the field. Or as Eadweard Muybridge did so beautifully during the 19th century, record motion.

‘…cameras, in short were clocks for seeing.’ (after Roland Barthes)

Kant also implied our brains are hard-wired to question causality. What set the hare running? We might never know, but this is how we impose the mind upon experience.

‘…phenomena, cannot exist in themselves, but only in us.’

Kant sought to reattach our minds to the realities of the external world and this is one reason why his work has been so influential.
Transcendental idealism

As we have seen, Kant was not simply an idealist after Descartes and Berkeley, where nothing exists except in the mind. He accepts subjective, internal awareness but observes that it can change over time and that this may be due to the impacts of external forces or substances. One can associate Kant’s observations here as precursor to scientific developments, however controversial, in neuroplasticity during the 20th Century.

Kant also said we are only able to mentally process those things, or ‘transcendental objects’, we have experienced beforehand. For instance, we should be familiar with a concept of what a universal book is before sensing/reading a particular instance of a book. A smell may trigger a memory, which reaffirms understanding. Phenomena and noumena co-operate to make knowledge possible.

Kenny implies, ‘concepts without experience are empty, and phantasms [ delivery of both inner and outer senses ] without concepts are unintelligible.’ The overriding assertion from Kant, however, is that space and time are part of our mindful mechanism for trying to understand the world. They are not realities in themselves, have no substance and, hence, are idealist in nature.

Hegel’s departure.

Georg Hegel wrote that Kant’s philosophy ‘constitutes the basis and point of departure for modern German philosophy’. He rejected Kant’s ‘the world in itself’ as meaningless. That knowledge is a conscious manifestation, in both sense and thought, was his main idealist principle. The problems of ‘the unknowable thing-in-itself’ and ‘human nature divided against itself’ were to be feasibly solved by philosophy itself. His investigations spanned from the most basic human sense to his teleological ‘Absolute Spirit’ or complete knowledge.

“Hegel sees human cognitive faculties as threefold, an ascending hierarchy of consciousness, self consciousness and reason. Consciousness in its turn proceeds through three stages: there is first sense-awareness (Die sinnliche Gewissheit), then there is perception (Wahrnehmung), and finally there is understanding (Verstand).”

Perception, both active and passive, might be included as the first point at which consciousness becomes knowledge by way of applying some semblance of order to what we are merely sensing. We may begin to describe properties, to articulate essences and to categorise. Hegel was critical of the nature of Kant’s categories, particularly in relation to one another. Kant assumed our minds to be structured yet passive to given impressions from the realities of the world, our ‘sensory manifold’. To Hegel, categories are always subject to change or are ‘dialectical’ through time. Our consciousness evolves, as does the world in which we live. The resolution of a thesis (being) with its antithesis (not-being) in a synthesis (becoming) is just the beginning of the dialectical process, which is yet more repetitive. The Dialectical Method is this refining process.

Hegel suggested thought structures emerge from this process of self contradiction and resolution. These are not just principles of logic but can be analysed through the study of history and of historic individuals such as Napolean Bonaparte, and other key changers in human consciousness.

The connection Hegel made was a very bold one: That we are a product of history and, therefore, as history unfolds, we are key to the discovery of an all-encompassing reality. ‘History is a conscious, self-meditating process – [it is] Spirit emptied out into time’. To Hegel, history, nature and Spirit are one, although Absolute Spirit is the point where individual consciousness through to collective forces, like political movements, combine to a uniform reality. Reality and thought become something singular. So our unravelling of the mysteries of nature, to Hegel, is a process of historical development. Historical process becomes a metaphysical enactment of Spirit, his major contribution to the study of philosophy.

Husserl’s Phenomenology and Bergson’s Vital Intuition

Edmund Husserl trained as a mathematician and astronomer before finding philosophy under the influence of his tutor, Franz Brentano, in Vienna. He attempted to pin down certainty in human knowledge by being scientific in approach. Like Descartes, Husserl wanted to liberate philosophy from biases and doubt (doubt being the only thing Descartes would eventually be certain of). Being of scientific mind, he viewed experiences as important but not everything, because of the problem of uncertainty.

Husserl’s Phenomenology, the study of experience and consciousness as structure, sought to ‘bracket out’ every past assumption in an attempt to eliminate uncertainty, and to distinguish cerebral or ‘transcendent’ consciousness from the ‘imminent’ raw sense-data. That is not to say he didn’t recognise past experience (contextualised and interpreted) as important to knowledge, but that he was cautious about the biases and fallibilities of experience.

In doing so, Husserl was influential in spurring further twentieth century investigations into the differences between psychology and logic and pertinently between psychology and epistemology.

Henri Bergson, another mathematician, did not agree with Kant’s view that we can never step outside ourselves to really know the realities of the world. Bergson’s philosophical investigations into knowledge outlined two main types: Firstly, knowing something from our own unique perspectives via intellect or analysis; secondly, absolute knowledge which is discernible only through intuition.
Bergson saw our ‘direct connection’ to the natural world via intuition as being generally undervalued, particularly by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. He linked intuition with vitalism or ‘Elan Vital’, which contextualises our varying experiences through time rather than space. In his Creative Evolution, we can describe reality as a flow rather than a state. Take a city, for example. One might take a series of photographs of the city as a spatial record, but would acquire a more direct knowledge of the same City if one walked around it in a state of awareness. In other words, Bergson asserted we underestimate our own intuition in our epistemological pursuits; perceiving the world in terms of our inner sense of time combined with those varying timeframes of the city. Bergson’s vital everyday experiences or intuitive grasp of truth went on to influence the philosophical Pragmatists like William James and John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead’s Process philosophy with Heraclitian change and process at its heart.

“The normal way our intelligence works is guided by needs and thus the knowledge it gathers is not disinterested; it is relative knowledge”.
From the individual to the collective.

“Man, fresh from the hands of nature, was a being both intelligent and social, his sociability being devised to find its scope in small communities, his intelligence being designed to further individual and group life.” (Henri Bergson, 1935)

So historical analysis of the development of epistemology reveals largely individual, inner processes examined in the search for truth and absolute knowledge. In doing so, we might assume the individual as sovereign. Teleologically, however, we have evolved to communicate, exchange ideas and co-operate in order to flourish and succeed. Language became a strong focus in the twentieth century at the conjunction of chaos and order, culture and the universal structures of the human mind.

The facility of language, or at least communication, is not necessarily exclusive to humans. Bergson, an evolutionist, commented,

“Now, it is difficult to imagine a society whose members do not communicate by signs. Insect societies probably have a language, and this language must be adapted, like that of man, to the necessities of life in common. By language community of action is made possible”.

We see a sudden expansion of an idea: Language becomes the link between self and society, individual and community. Throughout the twentieth century, a focus of philosophy was the development of language as a means to articulate logical and scientific process.Still, complex, human language has contributed to our collective dominion over non-human life, just as much as our ability to sense and reason. As human population has grown exponentially, and huge pressures exerted on the Earth by our number, there are good reasons why the analysis of what constitutes knowledge and the search for truth is more reliant on precise language now than at any other point in time. Language, as the instrument of assembling our collective knowledge, is vital for restoration of our place in nature.

We cannot underestimate the vitalism of scientific discovery, and the development of philosophy and communication of science in both acquiring knowledge and gaining public trust to that end.

The Logical Positivists’ ‘sole aim of science (being) to track patterns in experience’ prompted responses by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, who can legitimately lay claim to a more detailed development of the philosophy of science during the twentieth century.

Karl Popper highlighted the contrast between truth and certainty. Scientific knowledge ‘consists in the search for truth, but it ‘is not the search for certainty … All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain.’

Wittgenstein also alerts us to the perils of ‘convention’ in reason.

“A reason is a reason only inside the game”.

Thus the importance of Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift’ in the hard sciences. Individual scientists may discover anomalies in empirical data, where accepted universal paradigms or laws do not apply. A reckoning ensues and, if proven, can result in ‘scientific revolution’. For example, the shift between Newtonian physics as a universal view and the Einsteinian relativistic world views (where Newton’s “Laws” remain only a special case at human scale). That is not to say that the Structuralists, Existentialists and more lately, the Post Modernists did not contribute on the relationship between perception and knowledge. Moreover, the development of scientific inquiry and pooled resourcing of knowledge have more potential in influencing change or finding solutions built on trust. This applied, collective knowledge, for example, was highly useful, for instance, in the development of Germ Theory.

Peter Godfrey-Smith discusses the notion of balance in his book, ‘Theory and Reality’, exposing Heraclitian unities of opposites at work: The checking and scrutinising of new science alongside speculation that necessarily motivates research. Balances between competition and cooperation, criticism and trust, are at work in an everyday refinement of the scientific process. Kuhn agreed that, particularly in the interaction of criticism and trust, there is an effective relationship which goes beyond any simple empiricist formula. There are problems, however, in that any perceived fragility of findings, or uncertainties, can easily be exacerbated by the self-interested, or by self-interested parties, for good or bad. Trust begins to break down, which is especially relevant if communications are in a public, democratic domain, where otherwise the aim would be to formulate effective policies based on hard evidence.

Moral, philosophical determination is now, more than ever, integral to the applied use of empirical data in forging sustainable human development, and subsequently influencing the fate of all life here on Earth. Morality, of course, plays a huge part in whether Hegelian-style collectives are for good or bad, and whether or not group manifestos are founded on spurious belief. Notably, with scientific consensus at hand, the UNPCC notably added Oxford moral philosopher, John Broome, as lead author to its Working Group III on the 5th assessment Report — A hopeful appointment in the face of Climate Change and any call to act despite political editing processes.


We may trace a line of epistemological inquiry from the pre-Socratic philosophers to contemporary investigations into neuroscience and psychology, cosmology, even environmentalism. No doubt, ancient Eastern and Medieval Middle Eastern religious texts have contributed significantly to our understanding. But in the context of this essay, I have limited it to a general line of Western thought.

God as ‘all knowing’ aside, our human need to understand the universe and our place within it has not diminished. Kant’s revolution in knowledge, Husserl’s Phenomenology, Bergson’s Vital Intuition lead on to a radical and critical twentieth century inquiry into the importance of communication, language, symbolism and logic. Simultaneously, via the work of the Vienna Circle, Karl Popper and the Postmodern reaction to Structuralists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, we see important developments in the philosophy of science.

One could argue that science, not least the study of psychology and neuroscience, has negated the need for philosophical inquiry into the detailed biological workings of the human mind. In Kahneman’s work, we can see the negative consequences of underestimating the powers of the mind, in both intuition and reason. Skewed conclusions are possible, even probable, during the acquisition of knowledge, either via perception or reason. That is not to say there will be no further philosophical inquiries into the development of science. Kuhn showed us that paradigm shifts do, indeed, occur.

One could also argue that science has yet to negate the need for philosophical inquiry into the nature of spirit (and the spiritual). Hegel expanded his notion of Absolute Spirit as knowledge, to include not just an individual pursuit of truth, but political and economic movements for justice. In doing so, his influence, particularly in the context of Karl Marx’ materialist conception of history, is important to the expansion of epistemological inquiry, from the individual to the collective and cultural.

Wittgenstein’s personal experiences during the first world war may well have been the cause of his shift away from the logical rationalism of Tractatus to a more empathetic state of being. Language may not limit our understanding but would serve us collectively better if we paid more heed to it, not least in the communication of science, ethics and in democratic process.

We can analyse epistemological history but problems we face such as climate change and biodiversity loss are unprecedented. Now is not the time to rely on perception alone (the boiling frog metaphor and Sorities paradox both come to mind). Perhaps, the search for knowledge itself now relies less on the past than questions arising that are yet to be solved. History cannot itself predict the future with more veracity than sense or reason. If we restrict ourselves to knowledge as history or an empirical set of historical data, as with sense-data, then we exclude imagination in the creation of new cultural ideas and scientific inquiry, paradigm shifts and new, credible truths.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” (Albert Einstein, 1929)