Underlying Skills

Your focus seems to be on propositional knowledge but there’s also procedural or embodied knowing (e.g. that underpins skills), tacit knowing (incl. instinct & intuition), collective or distributed knowing (how we operate and negotiate with others and the world) and metacognition?

Tim Fawns

I got a good response on X to my last post. Tim correctly notices that I think of “academic knowledge” mainly as “propositional”, i.e., as knowledge that can be made explicit in sentences whose meanings depends on what could make them true. In whatever way it still makes sense to say so, I’m a logical positivist, a verificationist of sorts. I like Herbert Feigl’s “two humble questions”. I also believe that academics should cultivate what like to call a “propositional attitude”; they should see themselves as a “stewards of the facts”; they should “know things”. But I completely agree that we can only maintain our system of propositional knowledge because we master a series of underlying skills. Indeed, those skills are what “inframethodology” is all about.

“It’s not the proposition but your intellectual posture that counts,” I once said. It’s not what you believe that matters, but how you hold your beliefs. It is not whether what you are saying is true, but how you respond when someone tells you that you are wrong, that determines whether you’re an academic (or at least what kind of academic you are.) The skills that support your explicit propositional knowledge were called “tacit” by Michael Polanyi because they are often unconsciously exercised after they have been acquired. (Tim is right to call them “intuitive”; indeed, I often get outright Kantian about them.) Like I say, we’re talking about your intellectual posture, here, your attitude.

I want to maintain my focus on our sources of knowledge this week. So my question is — even though Tim is right that there are forms of knowledge (or at least aspects of knowing) beyond the propositional — are there sources of academic knowledge beyond reading, reasoning, and experience? Here “experience” is going to be a very big category — but it is generally where I would locate all the tacit “craft” skills that travel under the banner of “method”. A good question is whether Tim’s “collective or distributed” knowing goes beyond the networks maintained by our literature, i.e., reading. Are our social interactions (living conversations) valid “sources” of knowing? Or are they merely occasions for truly learning something through the same-old reading, reasoning, or experience (e.g., replicating an experiment)?

For today, these will have to remain questions.

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