The verb "to know"

Just thinking about the different ways we use “know.”

On the one hand it can describe a pretty one-sided or even extractive process. You can “know about mountains” in an objectifying way. You can list off facts and terminology without feeling anything or relating in any way.

On the other hand you can “know a mountain” the same way you can know a person.

What does it mean to “know” another? What action is “know” describing? What are we doing with, or to, someone in order to “know” them?

What makes some forms of “knowing” extractive and others reciprocal?

And what are we talking about when we describe someone as “knowledgeable”?

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My kids and I attended a tour of the Native American Art exhibit at Portland Art Museum yesterday. It felt similar to going to the zoo: so much beauty and life concentrated and caged up in one small place. A pervasive sense of loss, longing, and fucked-up-ness.

I thought again of the word “know.” Presumably we go to an exhibit like this to “know” things about “Native American culture.” The museum guide shares what she “knows,” and we hope to “know” something too by viewing and wondering about the mind-blowing beauty and utility of the baskets, masks, clothing, and tools displayed behind the glass, separated from the people and place they were made for. The beaded leather shoes that look sad without feet, the pitcher that seems thirsty for water, and the empty basket no one is allowed to touch.

The other day at Whitaker Ponds my daughters and I were talking about the word “pond.” Merriam Webster defines a pond as “a body of water usually smaller than a lake.” But of course a pond isn’t just a body of water, it’s also a body of mud, water skippers, cattails, tadpoles, beavers, redwinged blackbirds, breeze, sunlight, cottonwood, stones, all of their interactions, all of their births and deaths, and a lot more than that besides.

Likewise a basket isn’t just cedar bark. And a “culture” isn’t really a thing we can “know” unless we’re alive inside it, is it? What’s a mask without the person who wears it, and without music and dancing, people watching, and smoke from a fire?


To me your story illustrates the confusion and inflation of the meaning of words we see in so many areas. Once upon a time, we said that wisdom came from experience, experience from knowledge, knowledge from information, information from noise.

But now, noise gets confused with information, information with knowledge, and so on, and eventually we’ll confuse wisdom and noise…
Once you get confused, inflation comes easily. On a radio show, I heard someone say matter-of-factly that wisdom comes without effort, you can get there while sleeping, you just had to reach old age.

Same with the objects in the museum - confusion between culture and the objects if they (including the empty basket) hold the culture, then why should we care about the people who created and used them?

And how about the forests destined for the bio-energy? Instead of a “forest”, they get called “bio-mass production”. Clearly nothing matters but caloric value. Anything alive in there? Who cares…

But the coolest thing now occurred on the radio the other day: a company started advertising to get people to invest in solar power with the slogan “Believe in the Sun!”. Here comes the deification of natural powers!

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Sorry, let’s get back to “to know”. Thinking about this in the last couple of days, I found that in order to start “knowing”, you have to move past the level of “acquainting”, which comes after “meeting”.

Then “to know” refers to a relation below the surface, and this reaches from just a bit deeper than “acquainted” to deep knowledge. But here too, inflation and confusion occur.

Yes, I agree. But I also think you can list off things from “knowing by heart”, where perhaps the relation with the listed rivers can be questioned, but maybe the experience of the repetitive chime of the whole school class has engrained itself in every cell.

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The Proto-Indo-European root “to know” is *ǵneh₃-. It also lends itself to the Greek word “gnosis”, which itself has a contested meaning. The philosophy of knowledge, epistemology, is Greek for “logical discourse of knowledge”. “Knowledge” is “episteme”, “logic” is “logos”, and Discourse is the software this forum uses. :stuck_out_tongue:

However, neither episteme nor logos seem related to our modern definitions of knowledge or logic. Episteme comes from Proto-Indo-European *h₁epi, which means “on, at, near”, and *steh₂, which means to “to stand”. Proto-Indo-European *leǵ-, the root of both logos and Latin “lego”, simply means “to gather”. Curiously enough, lego means “to put together”. Perhaps why Legos are thusly named?

In short, epistemology seems only to mean “standing on what is gathered” at its most ancient known roots. Very different from either logic, knowledge, or gnosis, at least with their current conventional meanings. I suppose it isn’t so different though. Maybe knowledge is our perception of the world, the foundation our beliefs and actions “stand upon”, formed through both experience and intuition, what we “gather”.

When I say I only know something to “the best of my knowledge”, my knowledge is simply an educated guess from my own personal “School Of Life”. I could be wrong, but there is usually some truth in what I say, because there is truth in everything. The concept or “right” and “wrong” is simply a spectrum. When I tell my boyfriend “I gather you’ll make yourself sick eating that whole cake”, that means I have “gathered” information and can make another educated guess. “Standing by (near/at/on) what I say” means basing my decisions in that perception.

I’m not really sure what my point is. :confused: So many words have debatable definitions, including half the words in this past paragraph. The study of linguistics is a fascinating topic though, and so many terms have roots that may seem the total opposite. For example, “whore” comes from Proto-Indo-European *keh₂ro-, meaning “dear” or “loved”. A far cry from “slut”. Although *keh₂ro- comes from *keh₂-, “desire” or “wish”. More debatable words.


Lol. :slight_smile:

I’m good at making it sound like I’m talking about etymology when really I’m just talking about feelings. Using words to connect or disconnect.