Three Kinds of Knowledge

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Andy Pettman recently wrote an article entitled, "Two sorts of knowledge" and I think he is half right, or maybe two-thirds.  He says:

In English, the word “know” can be used for both a fact and a person.  You can know that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, and you can also know your best friend.  Both types of knowledge are genuine knowledge, but they are not the same type of thing.  Knowing a fact is very different from knowing a person.  Spanish on the other hand has two verbs for “to know”: saber which is about knowing facts; and conocer which is about knowing people.

We are back with the familiar problem - the language we speak shapes our world view, and we often struggle to get beyond this.  One major branch of philosophy - 'epistemology' - deals with the question of knowledge, and one major debate is whether there is a thing - a concept or category - such as knowledge, which unites the various kinds of knowledge.

And what are the various kinds of knowledge?  We have seen two of them - facts and people - in the quote from Pettman, but he misses an important alternative - perhaps misled by his knowledge of Spanish?  Differing again from our knowledge of facts and people, we can also know things.  So, for example, an expert woodworker knows wood.  They will know many facts about wood, and they may also be said to have a form of relationship with the different types of wood, but their knowledge goes beyond either of these.  They know how wood behaves, how it responds to the saw and chisel and drill and oil, and the many other tools we use to interact with and manipulate it.  They know how much pressure can be used to make a spar bend but not break. They know the smell and feel of many types of wood; they know the many stages between green and seasoned wood, and what each of these combinations will welcome, permit or reject.

It will come as no great surprise to discover that these three kinds of knowledge correspond with the basic framework we are using on this site.  We know things, people and facts; our knowledge is embodied, relational or mental.  We can discuss whether these three kinds of knowledge are all specific aspects of a single thing, often called 'awareness' in English, but for all practical purposes we need to handle each kind of knowledge differently, in a way that is appropriate to the context.

Knowledge and Certainty

It is built into our language that when we know something, what we know must be true.  So there are three kinds of truth, corresponding to the three kinds of knowledge.  We are calling them physical, social and spiritual truth, but the terminology is unimportant - what matters is that we recognise that each of these kinds of truth operates in its own distinctive way.

In our language, we make a clear distinction between knowledge and belief, but in the real world this distinction is often unclear.  The distinction between knowledge and belief depends to a large extent on the mental framework we are operating within at the time.  As René Descartes (in his Discourse on Method) memorably demonstrated, almost everything we think we know can be doubted, so almost everything I normally consider to be a fact is, when I consider the matter carefully and honestly, really only a belief.  This is where the famous "cogito, ergo sum" comes in: it is the only thing he cannot doubt, and thus (in his philosophy) serves as his first step in constructing a reliable set of beliefs.  Unlike Descartes, most of us find our emotions play a large part in determining what is reliable and what we claim to know.

There are probably many reasons why we want to know the truth, but one fundamental reason is because we desire certainty.  We find it very difficult to live with uncertainty, especially when the subject matters to us.  We need to act, and uncertainty means that we don't know how to act. 

We listen to a bunch of politicians competing for our vote, and very often we can say we know that many of them are lying much of the time; perhaps we feel that one or two of them are more trustworthy than the others.  But, whether we are talking about politics or some other area - like planning an IT project - research shows that most of the time, most of us are far too confident about our judgements: we often feel far too certain about plans and promises which have, objectively, very little chance of success.  We are very bad at handling and assessing uncertainty.  (The good news is that we can learn to do it better - see How Big Things Get Done for a readable and reliable guide.)

So our circumstances and desires drive us towards unwarranted certainty - towards thinking that we know things are true (or, equally damaging, we know things are false), when we only have limited evidence.

We find uncertainty very difficult to live with, but it can be much easier to frame it another way: we can play with possibilities.  We can ask ourselves: what if?  What if that person I mistrust is actually making some valid points?  What if this person I like has a good heart but sometimes poor judgement?  What if these social media posts I follow are only expressing one side of a far more complicated reality?  What if this truth I am certain of is not the final word on the subject - what if I might be able to gain a deeper understanding of some of the things I'm confident that I know?

We want to feel certain, we want to be confident that we know the truth, but we need to remember that reality is big and complicated.  In order to act, we have to make judgements about what is true and what is false, but even as we make those judgements, we can remember that any truth we think we have grasped is always partial, and can only be provisional.


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