Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.