Essay 5

To what extent do the concepts that we use shape the conclusions that we reach?


As with every title, the first thing you need to do is define the meaning of the the term ‘concept’ and the parameters of the arguments. This question can be reduced to the assertion that the ways of knowing all, to some extent, limit and circumscribe what can be known. I would suggest that it is best to focus in on two ways of knowing and refer to one or both of the others in passing. To try to do more than two WOKs justice within the word count would stretch a balance between breadth and depth too thinly in favour of breadth!

There is another broader issue to do with knowledge acquisition, paradigm and coherence theory. If someone has a deeply held set of beliefs – for instance Jainism, then their distinct belief system will inform new experiences and mitigate against being objective and open minded. “Jains believe that animals and plants, as well as human beings, contain living souls. Each of these souls is considered of equal value and should be treated with respect and compassion”. Jains traditionally wear face masks so that they do not inadvertently ingest insects. Thus it follows that they will have a very different view on the eating of meat than others. Their belief system will profoundly affect what new knowledge they accept. It would have to align with their belief systems and values.  Of course this is the same for us all – I just used Jainism to illustrate the point.

We are the same – we accept that which complies with the knowledge we already have. We assimilate new facts if they align with the conceptual framework or schema we have developed in our life either through education or personal experience. We see what we believe!

Such an approach leads to confirmation bias.

Even the clothes you wear can change the way you see the world. Its called enclothed cognition.

Another general approach is that of Paradigm theory. What you know already, mindset etc can define the way you approve ‘new’ knowledge and experiences? Slide 12

  • How do the different ways of knowing define and limit what we know?
  • Which ways of knowing best suit enquiry in different areas of knowledge?


Also the sense organs and systems of the human body largely define the kinds of, and format of the data from the outside world that we take in and use. An example of this is the fact that humans can only perceive a limited range of sound frequencies, thus what they hear, it can be argued, is largely determined by the mechanics of the inner ear and the way the brain interprets signals from it.  Similarly the only reason objects seem smaller the further they are away, is because of the structure of the eye etc.

We know from the McGurk effect that our ears can let us down.

Richard Dawkins talks about the Middle World. By this he means that our sense mechanisms have evolved to perceive and interact only on a scale, and with the things, that we need to in order to survive. He argues that this means that we only experience and ‘know’ a slim slice of the total of reality.

“After all, it seems obvious that the Earth is large and motionless, the Sun small and mobile.” he said in his TED talk in 2005  (see above). “But it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s remark on the subject. “Tell me,” he asked a friend, “why do people always say, it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend replied, “Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.” Wittgenstein replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”

This quote shows very clearly how, if we let ourselves form knowledge on what our sense organs (eyes) tell us, we could get it very very wrong!


The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis. If language circumscribes what we think then does it define what we know and can understand in the world?

“In a paper published in 1929 Sapir tells us:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection (1929, p. 209).

Our language affects how we perceive things:

Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. …We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (p. 210).

But the differences don’t end with perception:

The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached (p. 209).” from here


As far as reason goes – sometimes the validity of an argument (the way its stands up to scrutiny on the basis of logic) can affect how convincing it is. If premises are ill-founded or if the conclusion / outcome is untrue, whilst being convinced by the soundness of the argument itself, it doesn’t get us nearer to the truth?

Also ……. the limits of Human Reason in one video

Ideas and Resources

The video above shows that by asking observers to count how many times the people in white pass the balls means they often miss the gorilla. In other words the question predetermines the outcomes.