2.3 Propositional knowledge

The Standard Analysis of knowledge within Anglo-American analytical philosophy (cf. Williams, 2001) takes as its outset that knowledge is propositional knowledge, the ‘knowing that’ which Ryle contrasted with ‘knowing how’, i.e. knowledge articulated or articulable in words. Examples would be “Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States on January 20, 2009”, “Gilbert Ryle is the author of The Concept of Mind”, “Force = Mass x Acceleration”, “Riding a bicycle requires that one treads the pedals around” as well as linguistically expressible facts of a more temporary nature such as “The shoes I am wearing are black”, “The cat is on the mat”, “The patient’s condition is stable” etc. Often this outset is taken as self-evident so that analysis of ‘knowledge’ proceeds without any explicit argumentation for the focus on propositional knowledge, or consideration of whether there might be additional forms of knowledge, and if so how they might be related (if at all). (cf. e.g. BonJour, 1985; Dretske, 1981; Gettier, 1963; Hartnack, 1961). Discussions, as exemplified by the references just provided, instead concern what it is for us to possess propositional knowledge, whether the Standard Analysis of knowledge as justified, true belief is adequate, and if yes how each of the criteria may be met. When the question of other knowledge forms is raised by philosophers who take the Standard Analysis as outset, the claim is usually either that the forms may be considered quite distinct from one another ( Ayer, 1956; Churchland, 1985; Lehrer, 1974) or that other knowledge forms may in the end be analyzed as types of propositional knowledge after all (Stanley & Williamson, 2001). In Article 6 I argue that these two approaches are also the ones taken within the interdisciplinary research community of action research, if not always articulated in explicit theoretical statements then at least implicitly in practical investigations. Actually, as indicated above, philosophers such as Nordenstam who read Wittgenstein as advocating the existence of tacit knowledge, end up using him for – do not go further than – claiming the existence of knowledge forms distinct from propositional knowledge. They thereby propose a view in fundamental accord with the first approach. Analyses of what is common to the allegedly diverging forms and how they relate to one another are missing in the referenced literature((Not everyone within the Scandinavian reception of Wittgenstein has used him to advocate distinctness of the knowledge forms. Molander thus claims, very similarly to what I assert below, that the three alleged forms noted by Nordenstam are really aspects of knowledge: “alltså kunskap betraktad från olika håll” [“that is, knowledge considered from different positions”, my translation, NBD], (Molander, 1996, p. 40). Rolf apparently finds it somewhat problematic that Nordenstam’s categories are not mutually exclusive (Rolf, 1989). My point is the opposite: if there were no commonalities or interrelatedness between alleged knowledge forms, the claim that they are all forms of knowledge seems unjustified.))

Now, one need not expect – indeed, cannot require – an Aristotelian category analysis, where necessary and sufficient conditions are given both for the common ‘genus’ knowledge and for each of its ‘species’. Given Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblance’ and the methodological request formulated above to take everyday understandings at least as one’s outset for scientific investigation, a less stringent identification of interrelations between paradigm cases of pre-theoretical use of the term ‘knowledge’ is to be anticipated and will suffice. Still, on pains of being charged with uniting in one account what are in fact more or less homonymous uses of a term, a defender of ‘different knowledge forms’ has to indicate some interrelations between the postulated forms.

In accordance with this observation and in contrast to the outlined approaches, I do not wish to assert complete distinctness of knowledge forms. Instead, on my view there are close links between the tacit dimensions of our knowledge and the articulable one. What the latter is, how we incorporate it, and how it gains significance for us can only be adequately understood, if the roles which the former play are taken into account. More specifically, as I have touched upon a couple of times already, both experiential and practical knowledge provide semantic content to our words which may resonate in our understanding of them. They thus make up a resonance field of meaning upon which our propositional knowledge draws. For this reason I, like Molander, speak of aspects of knowledge, rather than of forms hereof, to emphasize that even though one may separate them for analytical purposes, they are interrelated and must be understood in relation to one another. Furthermore, by choosing this term, I wish to indicate that they are part of a holistic unity, that this unity is what makes up a person’s knowledge within the domain in question, and that any adequate rendering of them must explicate this relationship.

An example may clarify what is at stake here. I have previously referred to Polanyi’s discussion of the novice student’s discrimination of the lungs and various pulmonary traits and signs of illness. I have indicated that this discrimination involves both experiential and practical knowledge aspects and that the aspects are intertwined, in that it is only through prolonged training of one’s perceptual skills that one gets to the point of having ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ of the features in question. The training of perception, on the other hand, proceeds precisely through progressively ‘catching sight of’ new features by changing one’s focus and getting positive feedback in the form of experiential knowledge of what one sees when one does. The process, that is, is an iterative one of gradually getting to see more and more and learning how to do so. And as this happens, the student is simultaneously making finer sense of the words of her textbook and the expert radiographers, not only getting to know their reference ‘by acquaintance’, but developing a fuller understanding of how traits interrelate and what is to be considered a trait in the first place: As I stressed above, though a clear analytical distinction can be drawn between sense and reference, we in practice ‘get at’ the reference of a term through its sense. In the present context, this means that descriptions of the import of certain traits, their significance in relation to one another and their respective status as ‘normal-looking’ or ‘sign of this or that illness’ (perhaps on the condition that other specific traits are present and/or certain life circumstances prevail) decide what the student should look for. On the one hand this helps her pick out the traits in question and conversely lets her determine markings, colorings, indents, protrusions etc. which are deemed irrelevant, as just ‘negligible results of natural variation’, ‘misrepresentations of the X-ray machine’ or the like, to the point of her over time immediately zooming in on the relevant traits and ignoring or not even seeing the other ones. In other words, it helps her fine-tune her perceptual skills. On the other hand it supplies concrete semantic content to phrases such as “Trait Z is easily mistaken for trait Y”, not only giving the reference of Z and Y, but also an understanding of how one could ‘mistake’ them, how ‘easy’ this might be (i.e. how difficult it is to tell them apart) and what one should do in practice to avoid conflating them.

The point of the example is to illustrate that propositional knowledge – understanding of it and of how it is to be used – is acquired in unity with practical and experiential knowledge, not as a matter of coincidence or mere simultaneousness, but as a matter of inherent interrelation where each aspect plays a role in the determination of the others. Now, of course students may learn the propositional knowledge from their textbook by heart without ever looking at an X-ray picture, including verbal descriptions of any number of traits, their interrelations, and possible confusion. In this case, however, they would not be able to use their propositional knowledge for anything but recitation (which might also be what they were tested for in an assessment, but that is a different question altogether). Moreover, since they would only be learning by rote the fact that e.g. Z and Y are easily mixed up, it would be a fact ‘to be remembered’ instead of being one ‘immediately known’ to them from the experience of seeing the traits and having in practice to find out how to tell them apart. They would not, as Polanyi puts it, have “learned the language of pulmonary radiology” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 101) as a language of their own, but only in the way one may know a few words in a foreign language one doesn’t speak: One may remember the words on occasion, but it will be as something external to experience, something that has to be recalled or translated from how the world presents itself, not as something immediately at one’s grip. In contrast, when the three aspects of knowledge are learned in unity, the unity becomes part of what one meets the world with so that the latter meets one as structured accordingly – the words ‘make sense of’ experience, whilst experiential and practical knowledge resonate in the words to make them ‘readily applicable’ to new situations.

Polanyi’s example is, as I previously hinted at, misleading in that it seems to neglect the overall activity of which X-ray pictures are part. Above, I stressed that a complex of actions were necessary for the viewer to even get to the ‘snapshot’ situation of looking at such pictures. Here, I shall add the further observation that the ‘complex of actions’ are undertaken, not with the X-ray pictures as an end in itself, but as part of ongoing medical practice focused on recognizing and treating pulmonary complaints. The unity of practical, experiential, and propositional knowledge developed in the course of training to see what is on the pictures thus has its primary significance beyond the perception itself, in the practice of medicine. These considerations suggest that one look at the role played by propositional knowledge in our practices as opposed to theorizing about it in relative abstraction from its use, as has traditionally been done within analytical philosophy. Following this suggestion is, of course, fully in line with the general Wittgensteinian thrust of my argument: It is a further exemplification of the “Denk nicht, sondern schau!” of §66 in Philosophische Untersuchungen. More specifically, it follows Wittgenstein’s basic insight in Über Gewissheit that the pragmatic context in which we find ourselves will delimit what we can meaningfully say and that articulations of propositional knowledge are made within these limits and in accordance with what is relevant in the pragmatic context.

Precisely what propositional knowledge is has been an issue of dispute within Anglo-American analytical philosophy. Some philosophers only concern themselves with the Standard Analysis, take the term ‘proposition’ for granted, at least after supplying a few examples, and do not venture an analysis of what it is for a person to have propositional knowledge (apart from the implication of the Standard Analysis that it involves ‘having a belief’.) (BonJour, 1985; Williams, 2001). That is, they do not elaborate on the ontological status neither of belief nor of propositional knowledge. Others explicitly or implicitly equate propositions with representations, in the first instance understood as ‘linguistic representations of states of affairs’ (cf. R. Rorty, 1980, for an analysis), corresponding for many to beliefs, which they then view as ‘mental representations’ or ‘representational states’ (e.g. Jackson, 1982; Searle, 1983). As Rorty points out (p. 8), this accords with the tradition previously discussed (cf. above) of understanding knowledge as a “mirror of nature”, belief as the having of a reflection in the mirror, and the acquisition of knowledge as a matter of getting a reflection in the mirror which corresponds to (mirrors) actual ‘states of affairs’ in the world. The mirror of the mind has just been replaced by the ‘mirror’ of language, though not necessarily in the form of a pictorial theory of language (Searle, 1983, p. 12)15. Again, this view of knowledge fully concurs with the passive ‘snapshot’ approach to perception pointed to with Gibson in the last section. Characteristic of it is the ascription of a static, passive, objectifying ontological status to the phenomenon: Knowledge is something we have, possess, or entertain; the paradigm being a list of internally consistent statements of non-changing facts (requiring conversion of temporarily true statements into eternally true ones by e.g. the use of time-place-indicators) as one might find it in an encyclopedia, even if we cannot practically make a note of them all. Further, the statements are in a sense not created by us, but ‘come to us’ because they aim at (though do not always succeed in) depicting affairs existing independently of our endorsement. Understanding of the phenomenon of knowledge comes through analysis of individual elements (i.e. individual propositions) and the way they relate – perhaps holistically (Quine, 1951) – to each other.

Philosophers like Austin and Searle have stressed the active role which language has for us, arguing that we first and foremost use it to act – thereby performing ‘speech acts’ and ‘doing things with words’ (Austin, 1962/1975; Searle, 1979, 1983, 1985). However, because they methodologically pick out ‘acts’ by the individual utterance of an expression, and treat such utterances as unit of analysis, instead of focusing on the continuous pragmatic context in which the utterances have their place, their analysis still gives too much of a ‘snapshot’ view as well as one that is far too atomistic. In consequence, in their work, the acts in which propositional knowledge have a role are speech acts such as ‘asserting’ and ‘asking’, not broader activities incorporating this kind of utterances. The problem here is that the significance of an utterance, and therefore of the propositional knowledge allegedly asserted, asked for or the like, will in general be given, not just by the overall ‘snapshot’ context (which Searle would agree is important), but by the wider temporal one. This point is quite analogous to the one made above concerning the significance of X-ray pictures and of the perception of them in medical practice: A gestaltist view of the significance of an element in a larger whole is not enough; the ‘larger whole’ needs to be understood as a continually evolving one where every gestaltist ‘moment’ gets its meaning from the temporal whole, and where ‘snapshot’ situations are rare. Otherwise one ends up with linguistic, perceptual, epistemic etc. versions of Zeno’s paradox where the sum of discontinuous snapshots never add up to a continuous flow.

Even Rorty who does claim to take a pragmatic stance and to accord language its primary role as tool in dealing with the world still contends that knowledge is “a relation between persons and propositions” (R. Rorty, 1980, p. 152), though he construes the relation as social so that knowledge is ‘conversation, not confrontation’ (p. 170). He exhibits a clear tendency to see ‘dealing with the world’ as equal to ‘linguistically dealing with the world’, for instance elucidating the term “dealing with reality” with the parenthesis “describing, explaining, predicting, and modifying it – all of which are things we do under descriptions” (p. 375) and passing from the recognition that Wittgenstein (and Heidegger) “do not think that when we say something we must necessarily be expressing a view about a subject” to “We might just be saying something – participating in a conversation rather than contributing to an inquiry” (p. 371). Whereas I would claim that we might just be doing something; and that the utterances were an integral part hereof.

Thus, in diversion from most Anglo-American analytical philosophers, even including some of the more pragmatist ones, my claim is that propositional knowledge first and foremost has its role to play in the wider context of our doings in the world. At least as far as the propositional knowledge that is significant – for us and for what we do – is concerned. Merleau-Ponty says about language in general: “I possess its [the word’s] articulatory and acoustic style as one of the modulations, one of the possible uses of my body. I reach back for the word as my hand reaches towards the part of my body which is being pricked; the word has a certain location in my linguistic world, and is part of my equipment.”( Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 180)((“Il suffit que j’en possède l’essence articulaire et sonore comme l’une des modulations, l’un des usages possibles de mon corps. Je me reporte au mot comme ma main se porte vers le lieu de mon corps que l’on pique, le mot est en un certain lieu de mon monde linguistique, il fait partie de mon équipement…” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1993, p. 210) )). Taken together with my thesis that our words draw semantic content from the experiential and practical dimensions, understood as incorporated in bodily responsiveness and mastered motor space, a very different view of the way we ‘have’ propositional knowledge is suggested. The primary ontological mode in which we ‘have’ propositional knowledge is not as states (mental, linguistic, representational or otherwise), we ‘have’ it in interconnection with experiential and practical aspects, as a bodily ‘take’ on the world; a perspective which pre-structures the way the world meets us in action and poses action demands on us. ‘Having’ propositional knowledge, that is, is in the first instance a matter of acting from it, not of representing or asserting it. For this reason, the word ‘having’ is actually not an appropriate designation of the ontological realization of knowledge (therefore the inverted commas), neither taken in its unity, nor as concerns each of its aspects (experiential, practical, and propositional) in their primary form as part of this unity: The primary ontological status of knowledge is not that of an object which we can have, it is an approach to the world; a way we live it, or a style of being in the world. I argue this point in Article 3 and shall return to it in the next section. And the primary form for propositional knowledge to be realized is accordingly as incorporation into this “equipment” or “style” with which we meet the world in action.

This is not to say that we never have propositional knowledge in the form of explicit representations contemplated more or less passively without relating them much to our concerned activity in the world. We certainly do – sadly, perhaps, quite a lot of the facts learned in school are held in precisely that way. That is, they are held as representations or memorized statements – even as ‘a complex of interrelated arguments I have understood’ – and may be ‘recalled’ when asked for, maybe after a period of consideration and ‘trying to remember’. The problem is just that by that very fact they are not there as part of our outset in meeting the world. They are not there as the doctor’s propositional knowledge within medicine is there in the way the patient’s medical issues present themselves immediately as signs of this or that illness, or at least as a demand for subjecting the patient to certain kinds of tests; in the way X-ray pictures and other test results make immediate sense to him; or in the way adequate consoling ways of formulating difficult news come directly out of his mouth. Or as the teacher’s propositional knowledge of pedagogy and classroom management is there in the way she approaches her students, listens to them, and balances the correction of mistakes with the encouragement to further engage in the subject in her answers to the students. They are not there in the right ontological form, that is, but only in a secondary one, from which they first have to be transformed into ‘actionable’ knowledge (as I call it in Articles 5 and 8). How this transformation can take place is no simple, straightforward, or predictable matter. I discuss this issue at length in Article 5.

Likewise, the claim I am advancing is not that we never in ordinary life explicitly articulate statements of propositional knowledge or linguistically express facts about the world and our place in it. That would be ridiculous. One need only consider unexciting commonplace utterances such as “Would you buy a bottle of milk on your way home – the shop is open until 5 p.m.”, “Please let the cat out. It’s been on the mat for ages” or “Given that you add fractions by finding the smallest common denominator, how would you proceed to solve this equation?” to see how blatantly wrong that claim would be. What I am claiming, however, is, one, that such statements have their role to play in practice – as a way of dealing with the world – and thus often will be put forward as a way of acting in and reacting to the world (including other people’s linguistic and bodily actions in it), not of representing it per se. Which, again, does not mean that we never linguistically represent the world to ourselves or others ‘for the sake of the representation itself’, just that this is not the primary way for propositional knowledge to manifest itself in our usage, but a rather special one, and therefore not one nearly as pervasive as some Anglo-American philosophical analyses would have us think((It should be noted that we do have some practices which primarily aim at representation. Many learning and assessment activities in education are of this kind; and for that very reason they struggle with issues of relevancy and usefulness both in the eyes of the students and for practices outside of the classroom. As I discuss in Article 5, reflective activities instantiated as obligatory ‘pause for thought’ sessions in professional practice unfortunately very easily develop to be of this kind, too, becoming what I term ‘secondary practices’ with their own evaluative criteria relating to the act of representing, rather than to the ‘action practice’ they purport to be about. Science – or rather the different scientific disciplines – might be said in some very general sense to aim at producing ‘representations’. This is precisely why Heidegger thought of science as a secondary mode of being in the world, concerned only with being as Vorhandenheit, not as Zuhandenheit (Heidegger, 1986). However, as shown by many studies in the philosophy and sociology of science, the practice of science involves an array of activities in addition to ‘representing’ and indeed the role of representation arguably can only be understood in relation to these other activities (cf. e.g Hacking, 1983; Ihde, 1979; Latour, 1993, 1997; 1999, for very different ways of evidencing this claim); in very much the same way as is the case for any other human practice, one might add.)). And two, I wish to stress that offering statements as part of dealing with the world is a ‘foreground’ use of propositional knowledge concerning itself with what ‘stands out as noticeable’. As such, it presupposes ‘that’ which lets the ‘what’ stand out. This ‘that’, in turn, is precisely the perspective of the unity of knowledge aspects: The pre-structure it gives to the way the world meets us in action results in certain phenomena standing out as ‘at issue’, ‘to be considered’ or ‘up for discussion’. In this way, the foreground use of propositional knowledge presupposes the primary realization of knowledge as approach to the world.

Two further points need to be made, one concerning communication between people, the second concerning what propositional knowledge contributes to the tacit aspects. As to the former, the analysis of propositional knowledge as drawing on a tacit semantic resonance field of experiential and practical knowledge might lead one to wonder what goes on in communication between people. How can they ever understand each other, if they have not been in precisely the same situations, experiencing and acting in precisely the same way, therefore having the precise same ‘resonance field of meaning’, at least as concerns the domain in question? But on the other hand, is such an exact overlap of experience and action even imaginable – it certainly is not a realistic presupposition of communication. And anyway, is our everyday not full of mundane examples of people who are in fact able to communicate despite not having led exactly the same lives (whatever that might mean)? The answer to these questions is firstly that communication is not a binary issue of either understanding in full or not at all. A person’s tacit semantic field of meaning may be set in resonance by someone else’s words in ways that are perhaps a little off, but still holds significance for a deep understanding of the meaning of the latter’s words. A case in question might be discussions on child rearing between parents who have brought up children in different life situations, e.g. in the same country but in different generations under the influence of variant pedagogical theories. Secondly, the way the tacit semantic field is set in resonance is, as discussed above, as a felt holistic bodily responsiveness and as mastered motor space, not as static ‘snapshot’ mental representations. The resonance will therefore have some degree of flexibility and adaptability to the situation described in the words of others. Thus, when people have been in sufficiently similar situations, the significance that resonates in their words for them may provide them with full understanding of one another. Now, what will constitute ‘sufficiently similar’ situations cannot be determined generally; it will vary between domains and between people. Some people are simply better at letting their tacit field of meaning resonate in ways that are open to the differences between their experience and that of their conversation partner (they are the ones who strike us as emphatic within the domain in question). Whereas others have a harder time not letting the resonance of their own experience govern their understanding of others((Questions such as whether flexibility of resonance is a skill or a personality trait, is learnable (for adults?) or an innate capacity (to be developed during the formative years?), has a definite degree for each individual across domains or alternatively diverges in degree between domains, etc. are well beyond the scope of this introduction.)).

The second point (discussed in Article 6) follows on from the recognition that the resonance of the tacit semantic field may flexibly adjust in conversation. An implication hereof is that linguistic utterances may redirect and transform the experiential and practical knowledge it draws on. Hence, the relationship between the knowledge aspects is not unidirectional from the tacit aspects to the explicit one. On the contrary, propositional knowledge may play a clear role in making sense of experience and action. This is easily seen in the analysis above of Polanyi’s example of looking for and interpreting signs of illness on an X-ray picture. It is also obvious in situations where language is used to direct and retain attention to inappropriate habits in exercising a skill, e.g. an inopportune placement of the hands in playing the clarinet. As I emphasize in Article 5, the transformation of habits by way of mental or linguistic representation is not a simple matter precisely because ‘the way to proceed’ is given in action, not in representation. Therefore an ontological transformation between the secondary realization mode (representation) and the primary one (actionable outset in meeting the world) is required. Still, though inadvertent slips back into the prior way of acting will easily occur, persistent (propositionally articulable) representational focus on changing the habit may in the end help one develop so much familiarity with this new way of acting that it over time becomes ‘the way to proceed’ (without propositional awareness). As for the experiential aspect of knowledge, linguistic articulation of an experience may change one’s interpretation of it to the extent that the experience itself is changed. A banal example of this, given in Article 6, would be having one’s experience of the sound of the oboe forever (negatively) transformed by hearing it described as like the quack of a duck. Less banal examples are provided by Taylor (1985a) who for instance notes that when one recognizes a feeling of unspecified resentment as jealousy, the feeling will by that very recognition transform into a much more distinct sentiment. These observations do not detract from the significance of experiential knowledge, though, nor subsume them under propositional knowledge: Experiences cannot be changed at will just by deciding upon a description for them. And one obviously has to have the tacit experiential knowledge both of the sound of the oboe and of the duck in order for the described transformation to occur. Instead, the point is, again, simply that the knowledge aspects are interrelated; the tacit aspects supplying semantic content to propositional knowledge and the latter enabling interpretation, redirection and transformation of the former.

  1. Searle claims that “the sense of “representation” in question is meant to be entirely exhausted by the analogy with speech acts: the sense of “represent” in which a belief represents its conditions of satisfaction is the same sense in which a statement represents its conditions of satisfaction”. (Searle, 1983, p. 12) Of course the usefulness of the analogy hinges on the prior obviousness of the speech acts case; an obviousness which I really I do not think it has in itself, nor has it been supplied by Searle. []