A child who burns his hand on a stove after challenging his mother’s advice will not make the mistake again because he has proved for himself that the action is indeed dangerous and painful. Our lives consist of learning, not only in school but in the daily experiences which teach us how to conduct our lives. We are constantly gaining new knowledge, however not all of it shapes who we are as individuals and it is not the knowledge itself that gives us a sense of who we are, but the way we respond to it. Knowing that fire burns you will not create uniqueness in a person. However, if a person continues to play with fire, even after being burned by it, something about that person’s character is most certainly reflected. What we take to be true is what we will most often give value and practicality to our lives, therefore an important question to address is how knowledge is acquired and what is to be considered knowledge. Knowledge is acquired very differently in the human sciences and indigenous knowledge systems, so how they create a sense of self varies greatly.
Knowledge is often regarded as truth, and this truth will instill a need for action or responsiveness in a person. For example, a Christian has taken as knowledge that Jesus descended from heaven in the form of a baby and died for our sins. The knowledge to a Christian that Jesus died for them will give them a sense of unworthiness, value, peace, wholeness, etc. However for an atheist, Jesus being the Son of God is not knowledge. It is knowledge to them that it is knowledge to others. Therefore, it could be argued that what is not true to someone cannot be considered knowledge. Knowledge, then, can be subjective. In the natural sciences, knowledge is more objective, because the fact that someone doesn’t believe in a principle doesn’t stop it from being true. However, the ability that we have to find patterns and make something out of it makes us feel capable and powerful, while at the same time discovering the greatness of the earth makes us feel humble and small. So, all knowledge, whether it is objective or subjective, will give us a sense of who we are as either individuals or as a whole.
In the human sciences, there are two approaches for studying human behavior: the ‘naturalist’ approach, which is allegedly objective, and the ‘interpretivist’ approach, which is the subjective approach. The naturalist focuses primarily on social facts rather than individual decisions, which can be very unpredictable in comparison. The case of two famous human scientists embody these different approaches. Durkheim studied the causes of suicide and believed them to be completely separate from the personal experiences in the victims’ lives. While Durkheim focused on quantitative data, such as gender, age, religion, marital status, number of children, and other such figures, Weber would have tried to understand the reason for suicide from the victim’s point of view. The reason for such different approaches is that naturalists looks at human behavior as dependent on society, while the interpretivist looks at human behavior as a block of individuals. These two approaches to acquiring knowledge in the human sciences make an important point: different perspectives will determine what different people consider to be knowledge. Durkheim argued that moving from an urban to rural setting often caused depression, while Weber would have claimed that personal experiences within a specific culture cause depression. Which one is true? They both may be true, but a person’s response will lean more towards one approach than another, and that response will reveal how that person sees humanity. A person could see humanity through the lense of a naturalist, believing people are predictable and more mechanized, or through the lense of an interpretivist, believing people are complex and unpredictable due to differences in cultural and emotional experiences. So it comes to be that a person’s interaction with the acquisition of knowledge provides a sense of self.
Knowledge in indigenous knowledge systems is also extremely important to the identity of the indigenous population. Knowledge comes in the form of stories, songs, or dances, and all these ways of knowing are central to the culture of indigenous people. Most importantly indigenous societies approach knowledge acquisition through first hand experience and through the use of the sense perception and language. In Science, Colonialism, and Indigenous Peoples Marlene Brant Catellano is quoted saying, “The need to walk on the land in order to know, it is a different approach than the one-dimensional, literate approach to knowing [we are used to]… Persons taught to use all their senses – to absorb every clue to interpreting a complex dynamic reality – may well smile at the illusion that words alone, stripped of complementary sound and colour and texture, can convey meaning adequately.” For this reason, indigenous groups also form strong bonds to the places where they live. They have formed physical and mental connections to the land and have drawn knowledge from it. To most of the modern world, knowledge is easily accessible through internet, libraries, and databases. This easy access is what makes this period in time so significant and marks us as the age of technology and modernization. The same goes with indigenous knowledge systems: their land and culture define who they are because it gives them access to all the knowledge built up over generations.
What is knowledge to one person may not be knowledge to another, and that is fine. It is what makes us all individuals. Whether the knowledge is more subjective, as is the case with religion and indigenous knowledge systems, or objective, as in the natural sciences, it will create a sense of who we are in the world. It is often that we say, “I don’t know,” and this phrase always leaves us in confusion as to what we are to do next. Not knowing impedes us from taking actions which will allow us to grow as individuals and solve problems. We can’t take action, and that prevents us from achieving a sense of self. Therefore, our interactions with knowledge and how we acquire it will always give significance to our lives.