For reference:


I came close to abandoning this question for it seemed just another version of: "Do objective facts exist?", "Is there non-empirical knowledge? and so on. But trying to express my meaning of "structure", I realized all examples had one thing in common: the human mind. Then realized that any non-human-mind related (objective?) structures I manage to communicate would actually be subjectively imposed. (So maybe now I truly get what "A-thing-in-itself" is?)

But we're talking about structure, not things. And immediately I hear "Structures can be described and studied, hence they are knowledge also." However I submit that this is like English being its own meta-language, and that these are human-mind constructions. Mostly, we cannot assume there is similar relations between objective knowledge and structure as there is between our own constructs.

Edit: As pointed out by Conifold, thus far we just have a faint echo of Kant. Now as I understand Kant's "categories of experience" they are structural phenomena, we situate facts, or objects of knowledge, in frameworks such as dichotomy or a formal system, for example. It must be noted that the focus inquiry can be these frameworks themselves such as in programs like Structuralism. However we always find that (at least as far as human pursuits are concerned) there are "things" that may be termed "data" and some sort of frame of reference, or structure, within which they can be made sense of.

Kant rightly realized that we cannot arbitrarily extend these experiential reference frames. Our understanding is limited by the scope of our perceptive history. However the present question is wondering whether there are some meta-structural knowledge, maybe something about the relationship between data and data structures, that may be gleaned from our experience based knowledge and extended to the metaphysical. (In some sense this is a rehash of my earlier question about gaining knowledge that would hold inside and out outside a simulation.)

Question: Are there any philosophers who have studied the (possible) metaphysical difference between knowledge objects and objective structures?

Where "objective structures" are structural entities that exist independent of human experience, like how many would see Mathematics or Logic. And "knowledge objects" are things existing without a need for observation, like how physicalists sees most of the universe.

  • See e.g. Mathematical Structuralism : "The theme of mathematical structuralism is that what matters to a mathematical theory is not the internal nature of its objects, such as its numbers, functions, sets, or points, but how those objects relate to each other." Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 8:22
  • 1
    See also Structuralism in Physics. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 8:23
  • And obviously we have the well-known approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss to Structural anthropology. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 8:24
  • You may find the math called category theory and its history useful.
    – Rushi
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 9:06
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Thanks Mauro, I would have included "Structuralism in Physics" as a reference but for the obvious human-mind connection of theoretical systems. But "Mathematical Structuralism" does come closest to the idea I'm exploring, given that mathematical objects have independent existence from human recourse.
    – christo183
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 11:14

3 Answers 3


Generally the answer has to be NO, which is the main reason why radical skepticism is bound to fail since it questions the very structures which the meaningfulness of the position and of expressivity itself rely on. For a Putnamian (analytical) argument for this see Tim Buttons, Limits of Reality.

But, with Russell, we have to keep knowledge how (knowledge by acquaintance) and knowledge that apart. Of course, it kind of makes sense to say that animals and small children have some kind of knowledge and are able to appropriately behave in accordance with sensual input. On the other hand, what we think of when we are talking of knowledge proper usually is conceptual knowledge which is present in absence of the object in relation to which it stands or which relates to other knowledge or mere ideas/abstract entities. Basically, the small child may be acquainted with red colour and maybe even joyfully scream if and only if they see something red, yet it is hard to justify the proposition that they know that this is red. We simply project our knowledge onto the child (and our former self when we have been a child via memory) and treat them (/us) as if they(/we) already knew. For a nice treatment of this, see Rebecca Kukla, Myth, Memory and Misrecognition in Sellars' "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind".

That being said: To identify the structures which underlie knowledge was the original idea behind phenomenology, one of the most influential methodologies of modern philosophy. The philosophies of Foucault (Archeology of Knowledge), Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari all essentially aim to identify (and sometimes supposedly decompose) these structures. They, in line with what was first was conceived in the Critical Philosophy of the Frankfurt School, are structures which define Truth and Good and are thus potential instruments and elements of power which the free individual has to come to understand and manipulate in order to really become a free rational agent (something which, as IMHO at least Foucault and Derrida have come to understand, is impossible for a single social being who thinks and acts in terms of a social construct, ie language).

If you are generally interested in this line of thought, Foucault's book is a good start. I also strongly suggest to read Plessner's Levels of the Organic and the Human (recently published English translation), where he starts with phenomenological and scientific analysis and, as kind of a synthesis, develops categories/structures of life organising itself which are necessary to realise both of them (the historical a priority of life itself, one could say), ie unite the living processes and their physical basis. Towards the end of the book, he also develops accounts of knowledge and intelligence and how experience and thus knowledge is structured differently between higher mammals like apes and Man. What is more, Plessner is perfectly aware of the fact that even though the structures are evident, they are structures of knowing and living, ie not a rigid ontological structure but an ontic one which changes with modes of living. Thus, we know that any structures we identify are essentially us understanding ourselves as we live and understand and thus subject to change via living, researching, and development of language. As far as I know, he is one of the first philosophers being that explicit about this simple truth which has been reiterated in e.g. the Wittgensteinian tradition since.

This also answers the part of objective structures. Yes, they objectively structure our very understanding of objects, but calling them objective as opposed to subjective (as in, bound to our mind) kind of misses the point. The biological body with its sensual apparatus could be called an "objective structure" necessary for knowledge, but without an understanding subject processing the data and living the body - a phenomenological plane of experience - there would be no knowledge, no life, only electrical signals (Plessner explains why physicalism falls short of being able to explain the phenomenon of life). Therefore, prioritising one over the other (Physicalism or Idealism) is reductive and essentially misguiding since one cannot constitute knowledge without the other.

A more modern account of structures of knowledge and how they are bound to the biological and cultural development of our species, based on a lot of empirical science, can be found in the recent A Natural History of Human Thinking by Michael Tomasello.

  • An excellent Continental approach to the same question!
    – J D
    Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 14:06
  • 1
    @JD Cheers, upvoted your answer as well. Actually, I think both continental and analytic philosophy - at least those who asked the big questions and tackled them systematically - have culminated into some form of pragmatist philosophy, starting in the late fifties and finishing in the eighties. Thus, I'd question the analytic/continental divide, especially in metaphysics and epistemology. Mostly, the difference seems to be the approach via (abstract) conceptual vs. (material) procedural structures, both actually meeting somewhere in between by realising their methodological shortcomings.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 15:04
  • The question came up in the context of whether "confirmation bias" is a psychological quirk or metaphysical necessity. If I read you correctly, Plessner would favor necessity? What's his position on "knowledge" that fall (as yet) outside of our structures? Are there facts about Reality forever beyond knowledge?
    – christo183
    Commented Oct 28, 2019 at 6:08
  • I'd query the identification of knowledge by acquaintance with knowledge how. Russell reserved KAq for direct awareness: 'I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e.,when I am directly aware of the object itself' ( 'Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description,' Mysticism and Logic, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957:202. I've always assumed this meant awareness of sense data or of (say) a sweet taste. Knowledge how I associate with Ryle's distinction between knowledge how and knowledge that in The Concept of Mind.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 14:56

Can knowledge exist without structure?

The answer to this question is no, and it relates to the definitions of knowledge and structure.

Knowledge is often taken by epistemologists to be some sort of verified belief, and the process of verification whether it be establishment of adequate justification and truth or otherwise (thanks to the Gettier problem) subscribes to the idea that some form of inference is required to move the state of a proposition from belief to knowledge status. It is on the definition of inference, then that the answer to your question hinges.

What is inference? For some people, justification may exclusively be based on intuition such as those who believe in divine revelation. But most philosophers, including many theologians, reject this, and instead rely on deduction, induction, and abduction to justify conclusions from premises. A quick survey of history of philosophy will reveal that this is a central metaphysical aim.

Ultimately, then, if you, like the Ancient Greek physiki, reject revelation soley, and instead rely on reason, then you are relying on structure for your knowledge. How? Well deduction is a structural pattern among premises and conclusions. In modus ponens, for instance, P then Q and P imply Q regardless of any P and Q. So:

P1 If Socrates is in the kitchen, he is in the house.
P2 Socrates is in the kitchen.
C Socrates is in the house.

The certainty (which is the aim of characterizing belief as knowledge) is established by the structure of the method of justification, in this case deduction. A weaker form of certainty can be established with induction, though Hume noted its problems.

P1 Socrates is often in the kitchen on Mondays.
P2 Today is Monday.
C It is likely Socrates is in the kitchen.

Notice how language of frequency and modality make this an entirely different argument. Note that logicians consider deduction a far more reliable method of justification than induction.

So, does knowledge rely on structure? Yes, if one takes the simple introductory definitions of knowledge and structure as used by philosophers generally, and reduces them to more fundamental meanings in ordinary language, one can conclude with certainty that logical structure is necessary for knowledge.

This is a fact to many analytical philosophers who know it to be true. If you're interested in the connection between objectivity and knowledge, you might want to start with the logical positivists like Mach and Hempel from the Vienna and Berlin circles and move your way forward to the present day.

EDIT 2019-10-25 @christo183

Note, if one believes that epistemology partially reduces at a minimum to psychology, then the structures of neurocomputation provide a grounding for qualia. Hence the epistemologically privileged source of belief, perception, is a composition of sensory input such as a visual field; Searle recognizes both an objective and subjective visual field in his essay Perceptual Intentionality. In this way, one can see directly which two phenomena correlate in supervenience. Quine talks briefly about supervenience as why he rejects Cartesian duality here.

  • 1
    We can go even deeper: Take for instance color, we have a primitive sensation of 'red' long before we learn the words to express it. As a communication, or information transfer, device language is a knowledge structure; but there is also a physical (brain) structure that informs us of the redness we perceive. This tells us there are multiple kinds of knowledge and/or structures to make sense of them. Kant said (see edit) that we cannot gain knowledge beyond our "categories of experience", but here (in essence) I'm wondering whether we can gain knowledge of structures on a metaphysical level.
    – christo183
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 13:11
  • @christo183 If one believes that epistemology partially reduces at a minimum to psychology, then the structures of neurocomputation provide a grounding for qualia. Hence the epistemologically privileged source of belief perception, is a composition of sensory input such as a visual field; Searle recognizes both an objective and subjective visual field in his essay Perceptual Intentionality It seemed over the top to include, but I'll add an edit.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 15:02


Please consider reading this answer in the voice of a highly motivated and potentially slightly crazy University Professor which talks about the Topics he loves with great passion: https://images.app.goo.gl/bbcQeEtYZxBRrdew7 (That's not me, but it makes my point.)

I will not link to external third party evidence that the contained thoughts are true. Instead i will write this answer in a way which proves it self to be true, just by logical reasoning. This will help me to prove my point and you to understand the concept. I challenge you to think about the concepts provided, research for more external evidence and think about them on your own to come to a conclusion if they might be true or not.

Your goal in life should always be, to question what's provided to you as knowledge, to research and think about it, gather evidence and then build knowledge on your own.

I do know that the way this answer is structured is against the agreed notion of what is allowed and what is not, here on Stack Exchange. Nevertheless, structuring it in this way is necessary to understand the core concepts.

Content of this answer

  • Direct answer to the question you asked
  • Splitting down your question
  • Proposed definition for "Knowledge of a single person"
  • Prove of my definition of knowledge by example
  • Proposed defintion for "Idea"
  • Prove of my definition of an Idea by example
  • Closing the Circle to your Question
  • Closing words

Short Summary

  • Ideas are self standing
  • An Idea which is supported by evidence is Knowledge
  • The "existence of objective structure that is independet from knowledge" or "Can knowledge exist without structure" is an idea on it's own
  • If those Ideas would become knowledge in the sense of "Knowledge exists without structure" this would break the very notion of what an Idea and knowledge actually are

Where this question might come from is that we as humans "hear" only a very few percent of our actual thoughts (read about System 1 and System 2). System 1 is responsible for a majority of our thinking and only pushes thoughts to System 2 which need attention. System 1 is not fully understood yet, but well enough to create solutions (AI, neural networks) which mimic it's behavior. As those solutions are well structured i suggest that System 1 itself is also well structured. If System 1 is well structured and it's thoughts are based on electrical interactions betwen neurons, those thoughts have would need to follow the same structure the neurons provide. So thoughts and therefore knowledge can not be without structure.

Direct answer to the question you asked:

No! If there is ever measureable evidence detected that there is a unresolvable difference between knowledge and the objective structure we build knowledge on, the whole line of reasoning i had in my entire life would break down and it would put me in the most severe existential crisis that i have ever had.

If there would ever be any evidence that there actually is a significant difference between those two, i wouldn't be able to possibly explain my own structural approach on thinking and would need to question all the knowledge i have ever created or gathered, aswell as all the knowledge existing for mankind. This would basically be a death sentence for me. Nothing that's worse could ever happen to me.

It would destroy all of the notions i have why people react like they do, how knowledge is created or what knowledge even is in the first place.

As for your second question: "Are there any philosophers who have studied the (possible) metaphysical difference between knowledge objects and objective structures?"

I do not know if there are philosophers who have thought about the same question that you have. But i consider myself to have thought and researched about it enough to provide an informed opinion based on personal experiences.

Splitting down your question:

To even be able to understand your question and to answer it, one must have a very good and easily understandable definition for what knowledge actually is.

For this definition i would like to focus on the percived notion of what is understood as "knowledge of a single person" and not of what is understood to be "knowledge of mankind".

So now i ask the Question "What is knowledge?"

Proposed definition for "Knowledge of a single person"

Kowledge of a single person are the underlying ideas, the lines of reasoning and the percieved or measureble evidendeces he has gathered for a specific Topic in Question.

As you can see my definition, it contains "lines of reasoning" which essentially is the Structure of knowledge. So for me, your Question can only be answered with a definitive No.

A Person will believe that he knows about something if he has seen evidence that suggests that the knowledge he has is true.

Prove of my definition of knowledge by example

There is a very well understood Theorem in physics which has been proven to be true by experimental Data. It is about the way a "non-symetrical" body (think about a tennis racket) moves trough space when thrown with some degre of rotation. It reads like this: "The top can spin stably about the principal axes with the least or the greatest moments of inertia, but not around the intermediate axis."

This sentence is considered "Basic" knowledge by Experts in the field of classical dynamics. It has proven itself to be true on many measureable experiments (evidence) and is underlined with structured knowledge (lines of reasoning) of how classical dynamics works. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VPfZ_XzisU

Now please consider a person who has absolutely no background in physics. If you would state this theorem to this person, he would not consider it as knowledge (for him), because he does not understand it. He most likely will just read the sentence and think "What a bunsh of gibberish, physicists need to be more clear in what they mean."

I hope this is enough logical evidence for you to consider my Definition for what "Knowledge of a single person" might be, to have some trueness to it.

But now we have arrived at a different problem. My definition was: "Kowledge of a single person are the underlying ideas, the lines of reasoning and the percieved or measureble evidendeces he has gathered for a specific Topic in Question."

So to even understand this Definition we again need to have a very good and easily understandable definition of what an Idea actually is.

Proposed defintion for "Idea"

"An Idea is a self standing statement which exists by itself."

An Idea does not need to have any evidence at all. It merely is a thought a person has which could be true or not. He does not know about the "Trueness" of his Idea in the moment where it came to his mind.

How high the trueness of any Idea actually is, is determined by the perceived or measureable evidence that support that supports this Idea. It can be completely wrong, completely right or all things in between.

But for an Idea to exist, it does not need to have any evidence at all. Nor does it need to be structured in any given way.

Actually if one thinks about it, knowledge and idea are two words for exactly the same thing. Every knowledge can be formulated in a way which makes it an Idea. The only thing how someone decides if he considers an Idea to be knowledge is his notion of percived or measureable evidence.

Prove of my definition of an Idea by example

The Physics Theorem i have taken as an example for what knowledge actually might be is of great help here again. As stated, every knowledge can be formulated in a way which is an Idea. So i will just do this: "Could it be that the top can spin stably about the principal axes with the least or the greatest moments of inertia, but not around the intermediate axis?"

Please read this Sentence like someone who has some degree of physics background but has not understood the surrounding concepts of the particular Idea in question. He may have just thrown a tennis racket into the air and observed it's movement. For this particular person, the statement provide is just an Idea.

If he now starts thinkering about this Idea, researches it and gathers evidence if the idea might be true, he will create his own personal knowledge.

As another example consider this statement as an Idea: "A number is equal to itelf."

This is a basic Axiom (An Axiom is nothing different than an Idea) in the mathematics area of algebra.

It has proven itself to be true by the ammount of useful knowledge that can be constructed out of this Idea, the measureable real world evidences which are obtained by this knowledge and the various ways (which are ideas and knowledge on their own) of showing that the statement can not be false.

Closing the Circle to your Question

Using the definitions of "Idea" and "Knowledge of a single Person" and their respective proves we have learned the following:

  • My Defintion of what an Idea actually is is self standing, a basic axiom of my own thoughts
  • My definition of knowledge is based on my understanding what an Idea is
  • The Concept of "objective structures" is an idea on it's own
  • If someone starts thinking about the objective structures of knowledge he is actually building his own knowledge about the Topic of "Obective Structures"
  • As he couldn't even think about "Objective Structures" without an Idea what that means or knowledge that supports his thoughts, there would not be any Concept of "Objective Structures"
  • Thus i conclude that there can not be a significant and unresolveable difference between knowledge and the objective structures, as they are built from the same core concept

Closing words

I hope this answer has presented to you my Ideas and Thoughts, aswell as the way i have gone through to arrive at my conclusions.

This whole answer is basically nothing else than an idea of its own, based on my very own definition of what an idea is.

Based on the idea to create this answer in the first place, i have structured (basically the objective structure of my thoughts and knowledge) this answer in the given way to help you understand my thoughts.

I can see where the thoughts that there might be a difference between knowledge and the structure of it come from. As explained every Knowledge can be formulated as an Idea. And if your question would have been "Can ideas exist without structure?", my answer would be a definitive YES!. Ideas are free standing without any supporting structure.

After reading this text, thinking, researching and gathering evidence on your own, i am conviced that you will arrive at knowledge which is new and interesting to you.

I hope you had as much fun reading this answer as i had writing it.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .