Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

Language and Life

How Do You Know?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In a discussion, you may hear someone challenge an assertion by a speaker, asking, "How do you know?"  When we are asked that question, we have to give justification for what we have claimed.  We must give the facts, or clarify the reasoning by which we came to such a conclusion.

Often this challenge expresses disagreement. Our pride or integrity is then on the line.  Often I have heard the answer, "I just know!"  The challenge is then reissued, more strongly, "But how do you know?"

The Knowing Process
In the first use of the question above, the emphasis is on the verb "know."  This is usually asking for information.  In the second it is on "how," probing the process, the assumption.

In communication, this second question is important.  There are assumptions we rarely question behind our "knowing process."We who wish to communicate must ask ourselves, "How do we know?"

A basic communication principle is, Start with what they know, and proceed toward what you want them to know.  In communicating with someone of a different culture and language, we tend to look for the words to express what we know.

This leads to the question, "What do they know?"  But this still focuses on information.

This word "know" also refers to the deep "worldview," the cultural concept of reality and how we relate to it.  This worldview is often incompatible with other worldviews.

This involves a way of adding new knowledge.  The worldview determines what can be known – and how you learn new knowledge.

Thus you cannot simply input new information into the cultural or personal "bank of knowledge."  The communicator must know, as well as possible, what the target people already know, but also how they process new knowledge.

A worldview both enables and limits.  It enables by giving a definitions of what is real and how the forces in the world work.  This provides the frame of reference for what can be considered significant and for what can make sense.

A world view also thereby limits what new knowledge can make sense, in light of the previous knowledge and assumptions.

What is “Knowing”?
What do we really mean when we say we "know" something?  One might say, "I know he went to Germany," when in fact, he went to Holland.  The speaker "knew" something, but that something was not true.

How often do people comment in a criminal case:  "I know he could not have done that," but it turns out that he, in fact, did do it.  Can you "know" something that is not true?

This is really a statement of feeling or belief, not knowledge. What we mean by such a statement is, "Based on my concept of reality and previous experience of this person and similar circumstances, I believe this to be the case."

This is related to certainty.  When we say we "know," we indicate we have a high probability of being certain.  Let's look further at "certainty."

We usually mean:  I think I have enough information to draw a conclusion, leaving room for error – so I may not be quite right.  There may be more information I am not now aware of.  I am certain – but I'm not quite sure!

We say, "Well, I don't know, but I'm sure they were leaving today."Aren't people funny?  We use words for knowledge and certainty to indicate assumptions and probabilities!

The Point?
Stay with me.  There is a point to all this!  Now, how much information must you have to feel your opinion is accurate? In the US legal system, the principle is "beyond reasonable doubt."

But then, What makes it "reasonable?"  How much doubt does it take to be "reasonable?"  Reason involves significance, balance and decision.

The problem is, this varies culturally.  This again is a cultural worldview question.  What factors are given significance, where the balance falls, how the decision is made – these vary by culture

Probing the Psyche
So "knowing" is not the same for all of us, and it is not a simple process.  What is reasonable to you may not be reasonable in your host culture.

Learning to communicate in a new cultural milieu is thus a deep-level, long-term process.  It involves more than six or nine months of "language study."

It involves slow probing of the psyche of the host culture.  It involves active, careful observation of the people's decision-making processes, arguments, reasoning.

And it involves self-analysis and redevelopment in host-culture thought processes and decision-making.  Knowing in a new culture is hard work!

Your First “Knowing”
Look at it this way.  As a child, how did you first decide what was true, what to accept, what to reject?  You did not get to choose.  You were absorbing information and patterns from the world around you.  

You did not have a say in what came first or second, what you were trained to do and not do.  These first impressions and training provided you with the basic worldview.

Later you became able to use reason to compare and evaluate new experience on the basis of old.  You learned how to trust sources, weigh input and decide on the relative significance of various input.

The people in your host culture went through the same process, around a core of experiences, some similar to yours, others different.  So how people know becomes more important than what they know.

Truth – How we Know
Thus we must ask, How do members of the host culture know?  How do I know?  From how they know, what can they know, and likewise for myself.  Different factors given different significance lead to different perspectives and conclusions.

This means that truth is more in how we know than in what we know.  This must be the significance of the statement by Jesus that he is the truth.

Be Sure You Are Sure
So the next time you are asked “How do you know?” consider the deeper implications.  Be sure you are sure you do know.  And do not be afraid to admit that you do not know or that the way you know is different from the way other people may "know."

Communication is "knowing together."  It is in this interpersonal exchange that communication and ministry take place.

Also related:
[TXT] Cognitive and Social Culture
[review] Cultural Insights in World Migration
[TXT] Knowledge and Politics – Blog
[review] Self and the World, Knowing Reality


Originally published in the “Language and Life” series in Afri-Com, February 1992
This version written and posted 2 January 2006
Last edited 29 June 2011

Copyright © 1992, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

filename: knowll.html