Ways of Knowing

Citation: Huitt, W. (1998, April). Measurement, evaluation, and research: Ways of knowing. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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In general, there are four ways or methods by which we can ascertain the truth of something. First, we can know something is true because we trust the source of the information. For example, we may read a textbook or review a research study. We can also use references other than scientific studies such as religious literature (e.g., the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, etc.) In both cases, the information has been revealed to us and we trust the source of the information. Second, we may know something is true through intuition or personal inspiration. We may feel strongly that we have been "guided" to truth through an insight that is unique and personal. A third way of knowing is through personal experience. This is often a powerful approach to many people. A fourth way of knowing is through reason or thinking logically and critically about the first three.

Each of these ways of knowing is potentially flawed. We may read something from an otherwise credible source who has made a mistake relative to a particular issue. We may also have an inspiration that upon further investigation proves to be incorrect. The possibility of error through personal experience is well known by way of optical illusions. And obviously, reason is capable of error since so many scientists have different explanations for the same set of data and teachers of religion have different explanations of the same inspired text.

Kerlinger (1973) summarizing the writings of the philosopher Charles Pierce (as cited in Buchler, 1955 and Cohen & Nagel, 1934), provides a slightly different view of the four methods by which we determine truth. The first is the method of tenacity whereby truth is what is known to the individual or group. It simply is true. The second is the method of authority in which truth is established through a trusted source such as God, tradition, or public sanction. The third is the a prori method or the method of intuition. The fourth method is the scientific method which attempts to define a process for defining truth that produces results verifiable by others and is self-correcting. Kerlinger's definition of scientific research is that it is a "systematic, controlled, empirical, and critical investigation of hypothetical propositions about the presumed relations among natural phenomena" (p. 11).

Science, in terms of the ways of knowing discussed by Kerlinger (1973), might be considered a special case of the combination of experience and reason. While inspiration or intuition often plays an important role in scientific discovery, it must be subjected to experience that can be publicly verified and reason before it is accepted. The same holds true of revealed information; it is expected that we replicate or test out someone else's experience or ideas as reported in scientific or nonscientific literature or religious scripture.

My conceptualization of this topic is to focus on the sources of knowledge we might use. For example, we might use personal experience as known through the senses, unconscious knowledge or insight, or the methods and criteria associated with religion, philosophy or science. Each of these sources can be discussed in terms of such dimensions as the primary focus of the approach, the foundation upon which knowledge is based, the methods for acquiring knowledge and so forth. The following table presents an overview of this conceptualization.

The study of reality beginning with personal experience as known through the senses The study of reality beginning with unconscious knowledge or insight The study of reality beginning with the metaphysical or spiritual aspect of the universe The study of reality as viewed through the human mind

The study of the essence of reality

The study of reality beginning with the material aspect of the universe
Foundation of
Faith** in sensory data and perceptions Faith in personal intuition, inspiration, and feelings Faith in authority of revelation

Faith in ultimate unknowns

Faith in reason Faith in orderly universe and the experience of utilizing the scientific method
Methods of
Acquiring Knowledge
Personal interaction with the material, human and spiritual aspects of self and environment

Reflection on life experiences



Dream analysis

Right-brain thinking techniques



Reading/listening to scriptures

Discipline of material self/ego

Association with other believers




Other methods used in science and religion

Left-brain thinking techniques

Careful description/
data collection




Criteria for
Personal, subjective

Consistent with prior experiences, reflections and interpretations

Personal, subjective

Interpretation of feeling, affect

Personal, subjective

Interpretation of revealed word or scriptures

Consistent with prior interpretations and reflections

Public, objective

Logically consistent

Appropriate to issue or topic under investigation

Public, objective


Replicable, cumulative

Concise, systematic

Schools of 
Idiosyncratic to the individual

Influenced by biology, social interactions, and culture

Personality Types

Art and Humanities




Personal Growth and

Problem Solving


Middle Eastern
Baha'i Faith



Systems Theory
Social Cognitive

Systems (Organismic)
of Change
for Human Beings
Human beings construct meaning from their experiences with the world

This construction is "real" to the individual even if it does not match objective "reality." 

It is possible, but very difficult, to change the constructed paradigm of how the world works, especially after puberty

Human beings can utilize unconscious knowledge to provide insights that can lead to profound change

Unlimited potential for change if correct inspirations are rightly followed

Middle Eastern
Single, All- knowing, All- loving Creator created human beings with capacities/powers (to know, to love, to will) that can be infinitely developed

Hinduism and Sikhism share the concept of a Creator; Buddhism and Taoism emphasize the emergent qualities of a human being's spiritual nature

Range of views on possibilities of personal development of human capacities

Most acknowledge that context will impose time/social/
geographical limitations

Range of views on possibilities of personal development of human capacities

With possible exception of humanistic and social cognitive theories, there is limited potential for personal control of individual development because of powerful biological, evolutionary, historical, and social forces

  *A common foundation for all approaches is the independent investigation and search for truth
**Faith--unquestioning belief; certitude; complete trust, confidence or reliance; conscious knowledge; generally has emotional connotation; often based on unprovable assumptions

If we accept that a human being is an entirely natural phenomena (i.e., no aspect of the human being is non-material, spiritual, or supernatural; see Hunt, 1994, Fall), then the primary use of the scientific approach to discover how human beings are structured, how they function, and how they change over time within and among different contexts or ecologies seems to be warranted. However, if that basic proposition or assumption is not accepted, rather if it is accepted that the human being is, in essence, a spiritual being (de Chardin, 1980), then the exclusive use of the scientific method (or for that matter personal experience or material philosophy) to discern truth about human beings and human behavior is probably not warranted.

The issue of the best source of "truth" is a major controversy in our society today. However, since educational and developmental psychology are considered disciplines within the science of psychology, we will use the scientific method as the basis for discerning truth in this course. This is not meant to invalidate other ways of knowing in terms of making a significant contribution to our study of human beings. Rather it is to remind us that, while other ways of knowing can make important contributions to our understanding of human behavior, the power of scientific knowledge and methods is to show us how our perceptions of knowledge arrived at through these other ways are sometimes incorrect. Conflicts among understandings derived from separate ways of knowing point to the need for, or perhaps highlight, possible new understandings that can resolve the conflict. After all, truth is truth in whichever form we observe it. Ultimately, if a concept, principle, or theory is true, it will be validated by each and every way of knowing. That is, when all four or five ways of knowing (using one of the classification systems presented above) produce similar results, our confidence that we have discovered "truth" is greatly increased. We must keep this point in mind as we explore the findings of science presented in this course.

Based on this analysis of different ways of knowing I have begun to construct a statement of my viewpoint or philosophy of human nature. I hope you can use it as a starting point to develop your own.

Classification of Scientific Knowledge

The scientific method is used to generate a database of scientific knowledge. A generally accepted hierarchy of scientific knowledge includes:

  1. facts -- an idea or action that can be verified -- Example: names and dates of important activities; population of the United States in the latest census;
  2. concepts -- rules that allow for categorization of events, places, people ideas, etc. -- Example: a DESK is a piece of furniture (also a concept) designed with a flat top for writing; a CHAIR is a piece of furniture designed for sitting; a CHAIR with a flat surface attached to it that is designed for writing is also called a DESK;
  3. principles -- relationship(s) between/among facts and/or concepts -- Example: the number of children in the family is related to the average scores on nationally standardized achievement tests for those children;
  4. laws -- firmly established, thoroughly tested, principle or theory -- Example: a fixed interval schedule for delivering reinforcement produces a scalloping effect on behavior.

Two other important terms relate to how scientists think about and organize this knowledge:

  1. hypotheses -- educated guess about what will be found in a scientific study, especially in terms of correlational relationships (principles) and causal relationships (laws) -- Example: for lower-division, undergraduate students study habits is a better predictor of success in a college course than is a measure of intelligence or reading comprehension;
  2. theories -- set of facts, concepts, and principles that organize multiple findings and allow for description and explanation -- Example: Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Erikson's theory of socioemotional development, Skinner's theory of operant conditioning; and

The human mind does not think or reason in terms of discrete elements or "facts." Rather it processes information in terms of concepts or the rules for categorizing facts. When we build relationships among facts and concepts (i.e., develop principles), we are able to remember, understand, and access an astonishing amount of information. We are also able to make predictions from present to future circumstances. However, it is when we develop theories (add explanations to facts, concepts, and principles) and laws (empirically validate principles and theories) that we accomplish the highest goal of science--to control the variables we are studying.

The different types of scientific studies relate rather well to this classification of knowledge: if we desire to develop facts and concepts, descriptive studies can serve our purpose. If we desire to develop principles, we probably need to use correlational studies that will allow us to make predictions from present circumstances. Of course, hypotheses can be developed from facts and concepts and then verified by either correlational or experimental research. Theories are developed when one produces an explanation for the facts, concepts, or principles. Notice that extensive research support is not necessary to develop a theory. Laws can only be derived from experimental research. Unfortunately, solid experimental evidence is not widely generated in educational psychology and we have, therefore, not produced an extensive number of laws of teaching and learning.

Again, the controversy over what knowledge source to use in developing theories and laws comes into play. If we are simply material beings living in a material universe, then limiting our explanations to those derived from science is appropriate. However, if we are, in essence, spiritual beings connected to a spiritual aspect of the universe that is capable of influencing our material existence, then the exclusive use of science is unwarranted. Again, however, since this is a science course we will limit ourselves to knowledge derived using the scientific method, even though by doing so we may have omitted valuable information. It will be necessary for each individual to integrate this knowledge with that derived from experience, intuition, religion, and/or philosophy.


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