If not knowledge, what?


It came home to me for the first time yesterday that those of us who talk about putting knowledge at the heart of education might not be talking about the same thing. In a recent post, I wrote the following:

Philosophers tend to think about knowledge as justified true belief. Getting to grips with this would involve recapping some drawn out, tangled philosophical debates. I’m not going to do that here. Instead I’m going to think about knowledge from the perspective of cognitive science, which can best be thought of as structured collections of information, acquired through perception, or reasoning. This doesn’t have to be justified, or true, or even necessarily believed, it just has to be stored in the repositories of our long-term memory. Our brains are as full of misconceptions, confusions and falsehoods as they are anything.

This seemed to me to be a relatively uncontroversial position to take, but it seems I can’t just dismiss the epistemology of knowledge quite so easily as this thread makes abundantly clear:

To my way of thinking, knowledge and schemas can be viewed interchangeably and learning – the production of new knowledge – is defined as change in our schemas. Everything we are – our personality, experiences, preferences, thoughts and feelings – are all stored in memory. There is nothing outside of these biological processes; mind and body are not distinct, and there is no need for a ‘little man’ or spooky stuff to explain how and why we do what we do. We are the product of evolution through natural selection and so everything we are must be explicable in terms of evolutionary theory. We should be suspicious of any explanation of how a trait came to be selected that doesn’t satisfy the demands of evolutionary theory.

As I explained here, knowledge can be acquired socially or asocially. Asocial learning – that which is acquired first hand through trial and error is very likely to result in a justified true belief about the world, but social learning – copying what others are doing – can easily lead to mistakes, either through copying errors or through copying behaviour that was itself mistaken. This can result in us acquiring knowledge that isn’t true, but, of course, we act as if it is.

Apparently my interpretation of knowledge is rather eccentric and subject to no end of dispute and debate. If however you consider the dictionary definition at the start of this post, I’m not sure my contention is quite as unusual as all that. The online psychology dictionary defines knowledge as “An awareness of the existence of something and information and understanding of a specific topic of the world in general which is usually acquired by experience or learning”. This strikes me as a more more useful, practical definition than that offered by philosophers.

If we allow that knowledge is only justified true belief, what do we do with tacit, procedural knowledge: the knowledge of how to ride a bike or tie one’s shoelaces? This kind of knowledge cannot be reduced to a set of propositions because we don’t know how we’re able to ride a bike, we can just do it. If you try to explain to someone else how to do it, you end giving meaningless instructions like “just balance”. So, from this perspective, we’d have to conclude that knowledge is, at the least, justified true beliefs and tacit, procedural knowledge. This seems like an unnecessarily messy, and, dare ~I say it – overly nuanced – category.

What I want is a word that can be used to describe the stuff we think with and about. We have to call it something and knowledge seems like a useful, catchall term. Obviously it’s also useful to distinguish between different types of knowledge and here I’m happy to accept Aristotle’s three categories of knowledge: episteme, techne and phronesis. Episteme, or propositional knowledge, is what we know, whereas techne or procedural knowledge, is ‘know how,’ and is basically synonymous with ‘skill’. Phronesis, often translated as practical knowledge or practical wisdom, is perhaps best thought of as tacit knowledge and is made up of things we’re unable to articulate and don’t necessarily know we know. I’m also willing to agree that when it comes to propositional knowledge, the label of justified true beliefs fits pretty well, but I’m not at all happy to accept that this is the sum of what is meant by ‘knowledge’.

So, here’s my point: all the things we know have to be stored in memory (where else?) and anything we remember we can be said to know, regardless of its epistemic status. What we know is what we both think with and about; we cannot think about things of which we are unaware. Obviously it’s preferable to know things which provide accurate, reliable information about the world and its workings, but cognition will still occur even if we’ve learned lots of erroneous nonsense. The human mind has, as far as I’m aware, no mechanism for rejecting falsehoods and misconceptions and refusing to think about them; our cognition is only as good as the knowledge we’ve acquired.

This biological account of how knowledge (stuff we think with and about) is stored, accessed and utilised is an attempt to describe what we actually do. I’m trying to unify three separate areas – thought, memory and knowledge – to show that they are essentially the same (or at least, more similar than they are different). It’s all very well to say what knowledge should be or how we’d prefer the world worked, but if our preferences contradict observable reality, we need to go back to first principles and establish what is. My views on knowledge may well be wrong, but this is an empirical question. I think the ideas I have advanced make up a plausible hypothesis that needs to be falsified. The only way I think this can be done is through logical reasoning, observation (and maybe mathematical modelling).

I believe I have demonstrated through reasoned argument that knowledge is that which we think with and about. This is a defeasible claim. If you can show how thinking cannot occur with or about anything which is not a justifiable true belief, I will graciously accept that I’m in the wrong.

18 Responses to If not knowledge, what?

  1. Thank you David – for this and for your Twitter participation yesterday. I think it’s safe to start checking your notifications again…

  2. David F says:

    Hi David, if you aren’t familiar with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it’s a great resource. See their entry on knowledge here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/ From that, to get at your point on JTB: “Few contemporary epistemologists accept the adequacy of the JTB analysis. Although most agree that each element of the tripartite theory is necessary for knowledge, they do not seem collectively to be sufficient. There seem to be cases of justified true belief that still fall short of knowledge.”

    • I’m not sure that David’s problem is that JTB fall’s short of his definition of knowledge though – that it’s necessary but not sufficient (“the Gettier problem”), nor even that it could be seen in what they’ve termed “lightweight knowledge” – e.g. having a true belief without real justification for having it. Rather he’s looking at it in terms of all the intellectual data which we hold in our brains – propositional, sensory – whatever. Irrespective of whether it’s justified, true, or whatever.

      • David Didau says:

        Yes, that’s it. It’s about usefulness: can we use it to think with or about. If yes, it’s knowledge.

      • David F says:

        I recently read Arendt’s “Life of the Mind” where she discusses knowledge—following Kant she distinguishes knowledge from thinking and reasoning–she sees that these two faculties move beyond knowledge (I think going along with Kant’s concept of the moral imperative, which is not necessarily knowledge based). In moving “beyond knowledge”, she posits that when we think or reason on something by asking questions that cannot be answered we move into the realm of developing meaning (something she felt Eichmann failed to do, as he was not asking questions).

        While the context of those questions may be knowledge-based, if one buys into the Kantian moral imperative (which may be more instinctual) then that might fit into the category outside of what David is saying.

        I dunno…this falls into an area where I’ve read quite a bit but do not have a comprehensive knowledge–my instinct seems to be that David’s definition is a bit mechanistic, but maybe it needs to be….

  3. Further ponderance: Whilst I’m fully with you on your search to name what we “think with and about” as something such as knowledge, the “think with” bit doesn’t seem to quite work with the tacit procedural knowledge such as riding a bike, which we rather “act on”, so I’m still searching for the best possible functional definition of this ‘knowledge’! I know I’ve previously sniffed at “the contents of long-term memory”.

    • David Didau says:

      I say “think with” because non-declarative memories cannot be thought about directly because we don’t know we know them. For instance, many people will be unaware of the 44 phonemes and over 170 graphemes they have committed to memory in order to be able to read. The fact that they are unable to articulate this knowledge means they will be unable to think about it but nonetheless they will think with it in order to read.

  4. Hugo Kerr says:

    We are making a fundamental error here. ‘Thinking’ (by which I will mean mental activity which manipulates what David may call ‘knowledge’ but which I will call, more vaguely, ‘stuff’) does not have to be conscious. In fact all thinking is always unconsciously managed first, and we are only ever made aware of a smidgeon of the results, and for reasons which remain a little unclear. Not being aware of it does not mean it is not taking place. Memories, including phonemes, graphemes and their correspondences, are good examples, as is the motor cortex. We all often ‘think about’ high level stuff unconsciously, only later suddenly ‘seeing’ the result. Like Einstein in that sunny field…

  5. Hugo Kerr says:

    What caused me actually to write a comment, rather than just sit and mutter, was David’s remark that we can think with, but not about, ‘stuff’ unconsciously, whereas I think we can do both. I think one is prior by definition, but the other may offer particular advantage so can be called up in certain circumstances. (I wonder if it is an amplification system?) In general terms this may not matter much, but when planning learning I think it does.

    • Fair enough. There is certainly a difference between merely thinking consciously with unconscious knowledge structures, and also thinking unconsciously.

      I’m always intrigued by the process of ‘insight’, and how analogies spring to mind without any active search – there is clearly a process unconsciously searching for matching patterns in our brain. What’s even more fascinating is the way that a dream-world is constructed. Whilst we may ‘consciously’ think our way through them, and whilst the key ingredients of them might be just random ejections from our memories, there is some process at work which tirelessly seeks to create narrative wholes from them, and weave together disparate impressions meaningfully for our digestion – aside from our ‘conscious’ participation in them.

    • David Didau says:

      I would argue that the act of thinking takes place in consciousness (i.e. working memory) and that we have no direct conscious access to long-term memory and so by definition we cannot think about stuff we’re not conscious of.

      But I guess if you’re re-defining thought, anything’s possible.

  6. Adam Pryce says:

    ” Asocial learning – that which is acquired first hand through trial and error is very likely to result in a justified true belief about the world”

    Is this actually true? IIRC one of the reasons that Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) found discovery learning and PBL to be less effective than teacher-led instruction was because humans often derive erroneous understandings of a phenomenon, when their only exposure to that phenomenon is their personal experience.

    • David Didau says:

      Discovery learning and PBL are sub-optimal means of social learning. They do not, usually, involve direct trial and error manipulations of the environment.

      Read the post I linked to

  7. […] to the concept the have appear frequently on Twitter. Here, using David Didau’s proposition: ‘Knowledge is what we think with and about’ as my starting point, I hope to provide some clarity on the issues and put forward a conception of […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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