Thursday, May 10, 2012

Knowing How and Knowing That

Jason Stanley has a thought-provoking, if somewhat puzzling, piece up on the New York Times blog. It's being discussed over at I'm not at all sure that the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge is a mere "fiction" that should just be abandoned. But I'm also not sure that Stanley is right about how firmly that distinction is held by ordinary people (i.e., non-philosophers). It seems to me to be in itself a practical distinction, which applies to everything that everyone knows. We are able to distinguish between knowing that something is the case and knowing how it is done.

Sociologists, for example, may know that social movements mobilize a variety of resources in bringing about social change. They do not, however, know how to bring about social change. They study people (the leaders and members of social movements) who have know-how in this area, and whose "knowledge" is demonstrated in the effects of their efforts.

But there is something the sociologist does know how to do. The sociologist knows how to write about social change. One of the main dogmas that underlies my work on this blog is that if you know something as a scholar then you also know how to compose prose paragraphs about it. If, as an academic, you know that something is true, then you also know how to say it in complete sentences that are grouped into paragraphs, which are then in turn grouped into articles or books. (This is very much the distinction between "book learning" and "hands on" knowledge that a commenter has recently drawn attention to. And which also figures in the opening moves of Stanley's argument.)

While I believe the issue is purely terminological (and does not affect the folk distinction between "academic knowledge" and "know how", which is perfectly sensible) I would actually not use the word "knowledge" to describe "know how". I think there is a subtle kind of snobbery involved in valorizing what a pianist or plumber can do with the honorific "knowledge"—and, even more strikingly, by insisting that this knowledge is knowledge "of truths". It can be seen in the way Stanley thinks that someone who commits to repairing cars for a living at an early age might "rob not only her[self] of opportunities but also society of a potentially important contributor to literary analysis or mathematics". "Important", presumably, when compared to fixing cars.

In my view, the competent pianist or plumber demonstrates practical mastery, not "practical knowledge". All knowledge is essentially "theoretical" (as are all truths). People who are said to "know" how to do things actually wield power. Perhaps it is the scholar's fear of powerful people that gets him to attribute knowledge and a receptivity to truth to people who really posses power and a capacity for justice. Indeed, the ability to write, as Orwell said, is also more a kind of power than a kind of knowledge, and this academic "power" is the occasion for a bit anxiety among scholars. It is the "power of facing unpleasant facts."


Presskorn said...

The organizational knowlegde management litterature (Nonaka, Boisot etc.) has for long been bugging me on this point. On the one hand, they say the distinction between explicit knowing that and tacit knowing how is important. But on the other hand, they argue (like Stanley) that the distiction is illusory by arguing that explicit theorectical and tacit practical knowlegde are like currencies that can be exchanged into each other.

For instance, they argue that tacit knowlegde should be made explicit so that it can spread throughout the organisation, but as time progresses explicit knowlegde is turned (sometimes regrettably) into practical knowlegde.

It think this involves a kind a snobbery too and a bias against practical knowlegde. And worse, I think this totally misses Ryle's point: My knowing that Mont Blanc is so-and-so high never turns into tacit practical knowlegde, and my tacit knowlegde of how to ride a bicycle can never be made perfectly explicit, so that I could post it on company's intranet.

BLAH! Glad your post gave me an opportunity to get that off my chest :-)

Thomas said...

Yes, I think Stanley is probably just plain wrong that "practical knowledge" has "truth" content. I don't think it can be captured in propositions. It is of course true that my practical mastery of something can be expressed in propositions of various kinds, but always incompletely, and "learning" those proposition, i.e., knowing that they are true does not yield mastery. (Which is why it is pointless to manage knowledge in an organization by way of making tacit knowledge explicit and sharing it in a "knowledge bank".) People learn tacit skills by doing things with other people who "know" how to do them.

Here, as elsewhere, a philosopher makes a discovery that is trivial if true, false if interesting.

Thomas said...

Was "litterature" an intentional pun? Or just the sinister influence of Danish on your spelling?

Presskorn said...

The former, unfortunately... But I will start using that sinister pun from now on :-)

Charles Nelson said...

For differences on knowing how and knowing that, you might check out declarative and procedural knowledge in ACT-R Theory.

Jonathan said...

I think there is a difference. For example, I know how to walk but it would take some effort to come up with a theoretical description of it: I know it involves leaning the weight forward, then pushing backwards with the foot that is not going to be stepping, then swinging the other foot forward, etc... But what is the precise timing between these three movements? What other parts of the body are involved: the inner ear, for balance? What muscles are involved, from lower back and gluteus to calves? You can't just look at someone who walks elegantly and call him / her someone who knows about walking. Maybe knowing about it makes you walk worse, for all I know.

Thomas said...

That's my sense exactly, Jonathan. Stanley may be right there is always some "propositional" correlate of practical mastery, but I can't see how he's going to get my actual know-how of walking cashed out a knowledge of facts (i.e., in a series of statements I know to be true).

Like I say in this post, the only one-to-one matching I will grant is that if you really know that something or other then you also know how to say it in complete sentences.