Objective and subjective knowledge
by Edwin Bernbaum
Science, Conservation and National Parks
edited by Steven R. Beissinger, David D. Ackerly, Holly Doremus, and Gary E. Machlis (University of Chicago Press, 2017)
from Chapter 16
The Spiritual and Cultural Significance of Nature: Inspiring Connections between People and Parks
by Edwin Bernbaum
The examples from The Mountain Institute’s program with the US National Parks project indicate that we have two kinds of complementary knowledge that need to be incorporated in the interpretation, management, and governance of protected areas. They are suggested by two forms of the verb “to know” in Spanish – saber and conocer (savoir and connaître in French). We can see these two kinds of knowledge reflected in the sentence, “Yo se que el es un biólogo, pero no lo conozco,” which means “I know that he is a biologist, but I don’t know him personally.” The first kind of knowledge, which corresponds to saber in Spanish, is to know about someone or something – in the case of our sentence, what I know about him is that he is a biologist. This kind of knowledge, which we might call objective knowledge, corresponds with scientific knowledge. It is descriptive and explanatory, and it tends toward generalization and theoretical abstraction. It focuses on the object of knowledge and seeks to remove the observer or subject, so that feelings, values, beliefs, and other subjective factors won’t interfere with the accuracy of recording data and theorizing. It strives to be as value free and objective as possible.
The second kind of knowledge, which corresponds to conocer in Spanish, is to know someone or something directly or intimately – I know him personally. This kind of knowledge, which we might call subjective knowledge, is knowledge that a person gets through direct experience or through deeply felt experiences evoked by stories, poetry, art, music, or traditional ways of knowledge. When written down or otherwise expressed, it is evocative rather than descriptive. Instead of tending toward abstraction and theory, it emphasizes the concrete uniqueness and immediacy of what we see and experience. A powerful poem, story, or work of art can heighten our perceptions and make us acutely aware of features of nature and our relationship to them that we have overlooked or taken for granted. The metaphors and symbols that many of these works employ may have no direct descriptive correspondence to what they reveal in nature: that lies in the experience they evoke, not in the story, poem, or work of art itself. This is important because without taking into account what they are revealing, it’s all too easy to dismiss such works as fanciful creations of the imagination that have no bearing on the real world. Although we are calling it subjective, this kind of knowledge is not a matter of being merely subjective, but rather one of evoking subjective experiences of an objective reality. They reveal aspects of what is actually there that are not accessible to a purely objective approach to knowledge.
Subjective knowledge is important for conservation because it establishes an intimate connection with nature that motivates people to care for and protect the environment. Stories, poems, works of art, and traditional views of natural features help to overcome the subject-object dichotomy that separates us from nature and rationalizes environmental destruction and desecration in today’s predominantly economic world. Objective scientific knowledge, for all its great uses and benefits, tends by its very nature to separate the observer from the observed, placing a distance between people and nature. Subjective knowledge compensates for this tendency and complements scientific knowledge, so that we get a fuller and richer understanding of the natural world and our relationship to it. Park and protected area managers can improve their key mission of conserving the environment by including the expertise and skills of poets, writers, artists, traditional knowledge holders, and scholars in the humanities, as well as of natural and social scientists, in their programs of interpretation, management, and governance. Both kinds of knowledge, subjective and objective, are needed to know nature in its fullest sense and to establish connections that ensure sustainable, long-term support of parks and protected areas.
Edwin Bernbaum, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, The Mountain Institute
Co-Chair, IUCN Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA)