The Assimilation of Knowledge

The entire human existence has been structured by epistemology for it precedes any and all cognitive endeavours. Epistemology at its core focuses on the theory of knowledge in itself and in relation to truth, reasoning and beliefs. There are various theoretical approaches ranging from those of empiricism, idealism and rationalism to more alternative perspectives provided by Buddhist or Jain philosophy. Their complexities and nuances are fascinating although, granted my limited apprehension of these, the focus of this paper will rather lie in the transmission of knowledge. In more specific terms we shall pose the following question; what conditions the assimilation of knowledge? In order to provide an adequate response we must first articulate a clear epistemological frame for the sake of clarity. The constructivist definition of knowledge as an inter-subjective social construction, which opposes Plato’s own definition as an objective innate reality, will serve as our premise. Echoing the words of David H. Jonahassen, we shall explore the conditions which affect the assimilation of knowledge in the sense that knowledge is a ‘reality [which] is more in the mind of the knower’ than in the external structure (1991: pp.9-10).

Generally speaking, we tend to understate or ignore the conditions affecting our process of knowledge assimilation on a given topic. If asked about the origin of a particular piece of knowledge, we might associate it to something a professor said in a conference or a passage of an interesting news article, perhaps what we merely observed in our surroundings without any direct interaction. However, what we do not reflect routinely is the considerable amount of pre-knowledge engrained within our minds from the first moments of childhood. The work of many sociologist including that of Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Acardo have emphasised the crucial impact such a primary socialisation has on a malleable child and his thought process. Shaped by a number of societal values, norms and roles such as the appropriation of one’s sex and its corresponding behaviours (i.e. distinguishing colour patterns for each gender such as blue and pink, contrasting physical contact sports for males with delicate dancing classes for females), we unintentionally mirror such societal traits as a form of ‘incorporated social capital’ throughout our existence. This innate conditioning of the infant child in turn relates to what Bourdieu has famously coined ‘the illusion of the natural’ or ‘the illusion of the “always-so”’, which forms an obstacle conditioning our thought process (2001: 7). Indeed, such ‘primary indications [évidences premières]’ are naturalised within us from birth so as to constrain our ability to assimilate knowledge distinctly from their frame, and even more so given we have an ‘amnesia of its genesis [l’amnésie de la genèse]’ (Bourdieu, 1997: 217). Whilst it seems we may at least theoretically neutralise the effects of this primary conditioning through a process of ‘sociological historicisation’ (Ibid), one must not dismiss its significance as a conditioning factor upon the assimilation of knowledge.

Whilst Bourdieu’s analysis of naturalised social capital and its effect upon knowledge assimilation is key to answering the aforementioned question, Foucault’s seminal essay ‘The Subject and Power’ provides a more expansive understanding of this conditioning process. Paraphrasing the central components of his argumentation, what truly conditions our assimilation of knowledge is our constant and complete ‘subjection’ to forms of power (1982: 782). Given these forms of power are omnipresent, for ‘a society without power relations can only be an abstraction’ (p.791) and are deeply ‘rooted in the system of social networks’ (p.793), they affect us at every stage of life beyond childhood itself. Indeed, they structure all types of relations including those of the father and his child, the professor and his student, the doctor and his patient ─ the asymmetrical information of the doctor labelling a patient deviant with qualifiers such as autistic, cognitively slow or psychotic (Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is an absolute must in this regard) ─ to the point where we are no longer individuals but rather compliant subjects. However as ‘Subjects’ in Foucault’s sense of the word, we are ‘trapped in our own history’ both in being subject ‘to someone else by control and dependence’ but also to one’s ‘own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’ (pp.780-781), this self-knowledge relating to Bourdieu’s concept. Reverting back to our paper’s question then, as Subjects our assimilation of knowledge is conditioned by these ‘effects of power’ since ‘the way in which knowledge circulates and functions’ through these power relations forms a ‘régime du savoir’ (Ibid). This cognitive regimen is furthermore all inclusive by structuring every possible field of knowledge such as those of sanity, legality, paternalism and heterosexual normality around dominant parameters. Effectively, through a combination of ‘abstractions’, ‘economic and ideological state violence’ as well as ‘scientific’ and ‘administrative’ inquisitions, these forms of power categorise the individual and impose a ‘law of truth’ until all of it ‘ties him to his own identity in a constraining way’ (Ibid).

Concluding upon our initial question as to what conditions the assimilation of knowledge, the answer lies not only in the illusionary natural ‘social capital’ of our irrecollectable infancy which frames our innate perceptions but moreover in the persistent ramifications of inter-relational forms of power which sustain a régime du savoir. This being said, neither Pierre Bourdieu nor Michel Foucault are fatalistic in their analyses for such conditionings may be resisted if not overcome. Indeed, Foucault emphasises the necessary act of ‘analysis, elaboration, and bringing into questions of power relations’ (p.791) since these do not exist without ‘points of insubordination which, by definition, are means of escape’ (p.794). We must therefore seize the opportunities presented by struggles, dissent and contradictory voices such as that of Frantz Fanon and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ in which Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface encourages us to ‘take advantage of [his writing] and discover our true self as an object’ of postcolonial critique for they are the basis of critical reflections which may undermine our conditioning. Rather than to strive for utter coherence of thought at the cost of dismissing contradictions and overlooking counter-narratives, we must accept ‘the “antagonism” between power relations and the intransitivity of freedom’ implies a ‘permanent political task inherent in all social existence’ (p.792).

This article was written by Edouard Hargrove

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Edouard Hargrove


Bourdieu, P. (2001). Le mystère du ministère [Des volontés particulières à la "volonté générale"]. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 140(1), pp.7-11.

Bourdieu, P. (1997). Méditations pascaliennes. Paris: Seuil, p.217.

Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777-795.

Jonassen, D. (1991). Objectivism versus constructivism: Do we need a new philosophical paradigm?. Educational Technology Research and Development, 39(3), pp.5-14.