Originally published July 8, 2019

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Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. It addresses questions such as:

  • What is knowledge?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • To what extent is it possible for a given subject to be known?

I wrote an article about epistemology — Profiles in Knowledge: 5 Important 20th Century Philosophers — Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, Bernard Lonergan, Imre Lakatos, and Thomas Kuhn. I received a query based on that article:

I teach at a local Catholic seminary and the seminarians’ major is philosophy. From the thinkers you cite I especially relate to Lonergan and Polanyi, and also John Henry Newman and Charles Sanders Peirce, as not-yet-appreciated authorities on epistemology.

Can you think of a short work about KM from an epistemological point of view that I might show to the students? I emphasize “learning how to learn” as much as I do any specific facts.

Here is my reply:

Here are books that may be of interest:

1. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder — Chapter 10: The Work of Knowledge by David Weinberger

2. Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room by David Weinberger

3. Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility by David Weinberger

4. Complex Knowledge: Studies in Organizational Epistemology by Haridimos Tsoukas

5. Collisions and Collaboration: The Organization of Learning in the ATLAS Experiment at the LHC edited by Max Boisot, Markus Nordberg, Saïd Yami,‎ and Bertrand Nicquevert

  • Review by John Seely Brown: “A brilliant book that unpacks the actual doing of Big Science, including the epistemological, human, and management dimensions of running perhaps the most complex scientific experiment ever done by mankind. These different perspectives are then neatly interwoven through the Boisot I-Space framework bringing insight and coherence to this global effort. Although I have followed the development of I-Space over the years, I have never fully understood its potential until I read through this book, not once but twice. This book breaks so much new ground it is a must read for academics, policy workers, and those responsible for running complex R&D efforts in a global economy.”

6. Organizational Epistemology by Georg von Krogh and Johan Roos

  • This book presents a new view of organizations which has important implications for the theory, methods and practice of management. For several years the boundaries of political science, sociology and other fields in the social sciences have been significantly rethought with the help of autopoiesis theory. The authors examine how this theory can be applied in the organization and management field, by an increased focus on knowledge and the processes of knowledge development and guidance. Intended as a standard reference for all those involved in the study of advanced organizations.
  • Table of Contents
  1. Foreword By Kenneth R. Slocum
  2. Devising a Concept of Organizational Knowledge
  3. Conventional Organizational Epistemologies
  4. Autopoietic Systems
  5. Organizational Knowledge, Individualized (and Socialized)
  6. Unbracketing (Socialized Organizational Knowledge) by a Theory of Scaling
  7. Organizational Knowledge and Languaging
  8. Languaging and Beyond
  9. Impediments to Organizational Knowledge
  10. Opening Up
  11. The New Epistemology in Use: The SENCORP Management Model
  12. Postscript: A Final Self-Reference

I asked Larry Prusak, Dave Snowden, and Matt Moore to add their thoughts. Here are their replies.

1. From Larry Prusak

I wish I had book or two to recommend but there aren’t any, at least not in English. beside the ones you recommend. Some of the authors we rely upon lack cognitive authority. I would surely add Ludwig Wittgenstein to that list as well as William James. KM as a field hasn’t inspired too much philosophizing; most of the serious writing comes from management schools, but hopefully some clever scholar will take it all on one day soon.

2. From Dave Snowden

I recommend:

- Haridimos Tsoukas’s books and papers (although at times he is a little too in the Ralph D. Stacey/George Herbert Mead camp). Hari is one of the very few philosophers addressing the issue directly.

- Brenda Dervin has published various material on sense-making (as opposed to Karl Weick’s sensemaking) which has relevance.

- A good starting point is Leslie Paul Thiele’s The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative which gives an overview.

- Walter Freeman’s How Brains Make Up their Minds is good.

- Knowledge and Mind: A Philosophical Introduction by Andrew Brook and Robert J. Stainton links epistemology to the cognitive sciences.

- Andy Clark’s Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science (and indeed anything by Andy Clark)

- Paul Thagard’s work on Coherence in Thought and Action

- Manuel DeLanda in Assemblage Theory (Speculative Realism) and A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity challenges the atomistic thinking behind much of KM.

- Finally, Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism should be compulsory reading for any student of the subject.

3. From Matt Moore

I would only note that I’m reading a lot of Michel Serres at the moment. His writing is all about the relationship between our knowledge and our physical experience, and also the relationships between different kinds of knowledge (including religious and classical traditions). But his work is more like prose poetry than either academic or business-friendly writing. Perhaps his most famous book is The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, which starts like a Michael Bay movie and goes to some unexpected places.

Comment on this article

  • Comment from Tim Powell: Lots of goodies in this bibliography. What we really need in my view is a comprehensive science of Applied Organizational Epistemology — with an empirical, clinical, even experimental, grounding. Hey kids, let’s get working on this!

Comments on the original article

  1. Matt Moore: If you’ve got Popper, Lakatos & Kuhn, you would probably add Paul Feyerabend to the mix as well.
  2. Stan Garfield: I certainly considered it, but ultimately rejected including him. See How not to Feyerabend for a thoughtful analysis of the pros and cons of Feyerabend’s philosophy.
  3. Matt Moore: Up to you but if you want to discuss post-Vienna Circle philosophy of science, you can’t really avoid him. I don’t agree with him (as I recall I found him naive) but I disagree with Popper, Kuhn & Lakatos also. One guy who doesn’t get the attention those guys do is Ludwik Fleck.
  4. Stan Garfield: Fair point. I did mention Feyerabend 10 times in the article, including links. But I chose not to highlight his epistemological anarchism.
  1. Sarah Walters: Manel
  2. Matt Moore: Post-WW2 Phil of Sci was something of a dudefest. Donna Haraway would be an interesting counterpoint.

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Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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