Zen Epistemology: Knowing-That, Knowing-How and Everything in Between

Published by timdean on

This is a post that was originally on my old blog, Logos. However, in the wake of my post about the Knowledge Argument, I thought it might be worth resurrecting it, with a few updates. Here goes:

At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.

It has come to my attention that contemporary epistemology is disconcertingly arse-backwards. This is because it’s caught in the uncompromising grip of an obsession with knowledge-that. This, over half a century after Gilbert Ryle famously made a strong case that knowledge-that is not all there is to knowledge as such. Disappointing.

All the way back when I was writing my honours thesis – which applied knowledge-how to Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument in the philosophy of mind – it appeared as though there was at least a modicum of debate going on over the nature of knowledge.

But in the decade that has lapsed since, it seems knowledge-that has come back to the fore an, in my opinion, thoroughly gummed up the works when it comes to some of the most important questions in epistemology: what is knowledge?; to what does it apply?; how is it acquired?; can we really know anything?; is there such thing as a priori knowledge?; can anything be said to be analytic?

These are important questions – more-so than many in metaphysics – because they virtually underpin every other philosophical endeavour, as well as relating to a number of very significant real-world issues, such as ethics (and metaethics), politics, science, and philosophy of mind.

So, what I’d like to do here is espouse an alternative view to the paragon view of knowledge-that espoused by Stanley and Williamson, who recently suggested that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. In fact, I’d like to espouse the entirely opposite view: that knowledge-that is a species of knowledge-how. An arse-forwards view, one might say.

What Do You Know?

Let me start by posing a few paradigmatic sentences regarding knowledge of one kind or another:

1) Hannah knows 2 + 2 = 4

2) Hannah knows the sky is blue

3) Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle

The first two are commonly accepted examples of knowledge-that: 1) is a priori; 2) is a posteriori; while 3) is knowledge-how.

The first point I’ll make is we should treat our language in this field as largely suspect, as we should our intuitions about what counts as knowledge. We use terms like ‘knows…’, ‘believes…’, ‘can…’, ‘forgot…’ in many contexts, not all of which might be proper attributions of knowledge of some kind.

Consider the tendency in nature documentaries to attribute knowledge to animals: “the spider knows how to weave an intricate web”; “the baby turtles know how to find the sea”. They are certainly saying something interesting, but it we need to be cautious of all usages of language when it pertains to knowledge in case we’re actually talking about several things and only using one word, or talking about one thing and using several words etc.

This is one reason why I’m not swayed by Stanley and Williamson’s paper. A thorough analysis of the language of knowledge it might be, but that doesn’t convince me that our language and intuitions correspond to anything terribly special.

So, on with the show.

Bottom Up and Top Down

In laying down my alternative approach to knowledge, I’m going to start up in the air and make my way down to the ground. Why? Because I think contemporary theories of knowledge are backwards already, I hope this will make my theory more intelligible by starting somewhere familiar.

1) Hannah knows 2 + 2 = 4

This kind of sentence expresses knowledge-that, or propositional knowledge. It’s a statement about the agent (Hannah), a proposition (2 + 2 = 4) and establishing the relation of ‘knowing’ between them. Nothing too controversial here.

That’s not to say this picture of knowledge is without its problems. For one, the ‘justified true belief’ model of propositional knowledge has been batted around for centuries, to the point that it’s looking quite battered these days. It seems to be mostly accurate, but niggling problems keep cropping up, whether they be Gettier problems or understanding the truth conditions of such knowledge.

Then there are Quine’s objections against analytic sentences, which are sentences that are knowable to the true simply by an understanding of the terms involved, such as the texbook: “all bachelors are unmarried”.

I won’t deal with these issues here – because ultimately I don’t think they’re problems at all. This is because these kinds of propositions are never going to be unambiguously true, at least of the concrete world. That’s because these propositions are ultimately abstractions from the concrete world – a world I’m going to talk about shortly. And as abstractions, they’ve already abandoned some crucial information about the world, so they’ll never be able to perfectly represent that world. No two ducks are exactly the same, so the word ‘duck’ represents a vague collection of things. Break a piece of chalk in half and some will say you’re holding two halves of a piece of chalk – others will say you now hold two pieces of chalk.

But wait, isn’t 1) a priori – independent of experience? Yes, it is. The proposition ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is an abstract proposition about other abstract propositions. As such, they can be ‘true’ – or ‘consistent’ – within that particular ‘proposition-‘ or ‘concept-space’, such as the space of mathematics. However, I’d suggest – in true empirical tradition – that such propositions need to be related to the world in order for them to say something true of the world itself. Otherwise, they’re simply talking about their concept space. Likewise for so-called ‘analytic’ sentences – the best they can achieve is consistency within their concept space, but that space will never be perfectly grounded in reality.

Mathematics started from abstractions from experiences of the world, from which point lots can be said within mathematics – and even new mathematical knowledge discovered within that system, a la a priori knowledge – but maths (or any axiomatic system) will never be entirely consistent and complete. Gödel told us that. So when it comes time to relate maths back to the world, it won’t relate perfectly. And I’d suggest this is the case with all abstract systems, including language, propositions and thus knowledge-that.

I call this a priori propositional knowledge 3rd-order knowledge. And I’m using the term ‘knowledge’ reservedly here, in a more psychological sense, as I don’t believe a priori knowledge can ever be perfectly true when related back to the world. And even when analytic, it’s only a weak form of ‘truth’ (there might be a better name for it) since it’s only true within its abstract concept space and not of the concrete world.


2) Hannah knows the sky is blue

This sentences expresses knowledge from the next tier – 2nd-order knowledge. This is another example of propositional knowledge, except in this case it’s a posteriori rather than a priori; the truth of this statement depends on some fact about the world.

However, like 3rd-order knowledge, this kind of propositional knowledge involves abstraction about the world. ‘The sky’ and ‘blue’ are vague abstractions from the concrete world. That’s not to say that there isn’t something in the concrete world we’re talking about when we mention ‘the sky’ or the colour ‘blue’. But the proposition ‘the sky’ and ‘blue’ will never perfectly capture or represent that thing we’re talking about in all its detail.

Big deal? Yes. Abstractions are useful, but they’re also deceptive. I’ll talk about the concrete world in a moment, but whenever we abstract from the concrete world we make at least one error – we draw distinctions. A and not-A. The sky and not-sky. Blue is not red. Yet these distinctions don’t exist in the concrete world, which is single and contiguous, but not homogeneous. As such, any proposition based on such an abstraction will only ever be a vague approximation of some aspect of the real world – like a stereotype, not 100% accurate, but useful none the less.

I don’t think this in any way prevents us from using such propositions – I just think we need to stop short of talking about ‘knowledge’ about the world (and from that, knowledge within a proposition space abstracted from the world) in black and white terms. If, by ‘truth’, we mean perfect correspondence with some aspect of the world – that’s impossible.


3) Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle

Now we’re in knowing-how territory. This is 1st-order knowledge, under this model. Knowing-how is non-propositional. However – and this is one reason I think we need to be careful with our use of language – whenever we talk about knowing-how we use propositions: the language of knowing-that. And these propositions will never completely describe the knowing-how.

So 3) could be translated into saying:

4) I know that Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle

I’d characterise 3) in a similar way to Ryle. 3) means that Hannah has a disposition to perform a certain action under the right circumstances, and she possesses this disposition by virtue of possessing certain mental and physical properties. The mental properties needn’t be conscious, and in fact, I’d suggest a vast majority of 1st-order knowing-how is non-conscious. Heck, think about the last time you drove home. Were you conscious of your gear changes, or indicator usage, or lane changes?

And this is where I think a lot of confusion crops up when talking about knowing-that and knowing-how. Because knowing-how can also be abstracted away into knowing-that. So when I say something like 3), this could also be stated in terms of a long ream of propositions about pedals, balance, applying pressure to the breaks, inertia, wind resistance etc. However, I’d suggest these propositions would never a) perfectly describe the knowing-how (see above) and b) they are not what we’re talking about when we say Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle.

Hannah riding a bicycle is concrete, not abstract. She knows how to ride the bike because she does (in the appropriate circumstances). Any description of her riding is abstract, thus cannot capture the activity in its entirety.

Now, an objection is often raised at this point, one that Stanley and Williamson raise against Ryle. They suggest one of Ryle’s premises is:

If one Fs, one employs knowledge-how to F.

And they provide an example in this vain:

If Hannah wins a fair lottery, she still does not know how to win the lottery, since it was by sheer chance that she did so.

But, I’d suggest this is a not an example of 1st-order knowledge, because winning the lottery requires no mental activity. They could have just as easily said that Hannah knows how to use gravity to stay attached to the Earth. I would suggest that any 1st-order knowledge requires some kind of mental activity, and as such, has mental properties upon which to base the dispositional nature of this species of knowledge-how. And that rules out lotteries and gravity from being knowledge-how.

But… I do think we attribute ‘knowledge’ to people, animals and even things even when we’re talking about acts that don’t involve mental activity: the spider knows how to weave a web; the plant knows how to angle its leaves towards the sunlight; the seeds know to germinate when the 10 year flood arrives, etc.

Now, we may well be mistaken to call this knowledge in any of the above senses. But we’re talking about something interesting here, and something I think is often overlooked. For if you explore what we’re talking about, we’re still talking about dispositions. Except instead of requiring mental properties, they require physical properties alone.

No difference in kind, just degree – properties by virtue of which that thing possesses that disposition. Which brings me to the ground floor.


While I’m happy to call 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-order knowledge ‘knowledge’ (at least in a psychological sense, if not justified true belief), I still would like to admit a species of disposition that I think underlies all of our knowledge-how: 0th-order ‘abilities’.

Abilities are much like 1st-order knowledge in that they’re dispositions. Something has the ability to x if it will x under the appropriate circumstances. So yes, a glass has the ‘ability’ to break. (Maybe there’s a better word than ‘ability’, I don’t know. I’m reluctant to use ‘disposition’ as it’s a complex term that appears in the other orders of knowledge. But it is the foundation of those orders of knowledge, so perhaps it’s more suitable. I’m open to suggestion.) Again, it’s concrete, not abstract.

We can talk about thinking as one example of an ability possessed by humans. Ryle even seems to hint that we need some kind of prior account of cognition in general before we start talking about the font from which knowledge springs. I’d suggest thinking, and all its related faculties, are abilities held by an individual by virtue of their physical properties, namely their possession of a brain structured so.

Nothing really remarkable about 0th-level abilities, but I think it’s important to have them on the ground floor to give a foundation to the higher orders of knowledge. And again, a word of caution not to mistake the description of an ability (in terms of knowledge-that) for the ability itself.

Know what?

So there you have it. A four-tiered model of ‘knowledge’. One that places abilities and knowledge-how at the base, and dethrones propositional knowledge from its foundational status as found in Stanley and Williamson. Furthermore, knowledge-that requires knowledge-how and abilities to exist. For one cannot abstract without the ability to do so.

I’ll state one counter-example that is often cited to deny that knowledge-how is prior to knowledge-that.

4) Hannah knows how to do 1,000 push-ups

Hannah might be quite capable of doing one push-up, and she might be able to imagine doing 1,000 push-ups, but she is a long way from being able to actually do 1,000 push-ups. According to the Stanley-Williamson account, Hannah could know-how to do 1,000 push-ups without actually being able to do them. This is because she knows a number of propositions that could constitute her knowledge of how to do 1,000 push-ups, were she physically able to do them.

Under my alternate model of knowledge, Hannah doesn’t know-how to do 1,000 push-ups, because she cannot do them. She might know-how to do one push-up, or 10. But this knowledge-how is dispositional, depending on her mental and physical properties (the only difference with 0th-order abilities is they depend on physical properties alone).

Yet she might possess some knowledge-that abstracted from past experiences of push-ups, along with some theoretical knowledge of human physiology and physics. With this knowledge-that, she could perhaps describe to someone how to do 1,000 push-ups in the same way she might describe how to ride a bicycle to a learner. Yet the person receiving the exhaustive list of propositions about riding a bicycle or doing 1,000 push-ups may quite plausibly be unable to actually do either one. The learner wouldn’t acquire the knowledge-how to do the 1,000 push-ups.

Zen Epistemology

You also might be wondering why I chose that particular quote at the beginning of this post. That’s a Zen proverb that I think captures the spirit of this model of knowledge. For in Buddhism it is acknowledged that the concrete world is unitary and contiguous, and it’s us that cut and dice it into discrete chunks and apply labels to things like mountains, rivers and bicycles – and then try to shoehorn logic around it as if it was already there.

These labels are descriptions – incomplete descriptions – that don’t perfectly represent the objects to which they refer. So if we’re to look at mountains, we shouldn’t fall for the illusion that that’s all they are – a bundle of discrete things as represented by our propositions. Our labels, our propositions, are alluring, but they’re not enough to represent reality. Thus, to see mountains as they really are requires us to unshackle ourselves from the distinctions and propositions we project on to the world.

But – and there’s the zen twist – those propositions are still necessary to our understanding of the world. We might escape our constrained perspective on the world for fleeting moments – and in those moments we might even see things as they are – but when it comes to making sense of the world, we need those limited, clunky, inaccurate labels and propositions. So we get on with it, and mountains become mountains, rivers become rivers, and bicycles become bicycles again.


Paul · 17th December 2009 at 2:36 am

I think that you have left something out of your account of Zen epistemology. Once you realize that our labels don’t adequately represent reality, you don’t think of them as knowledge-that anymore. Instead, you rather see them as a tool for getting on in the world, and one that can, perhaps, be replaced by better tools. That is to say, Zen argues that there isn’t any Knowledge-that, only knowledge-how. Although maybe that’s an oversimplification.

Tim Dean · 17th December 2009 at 9:39 am

I agree that in this ‘zen’ conception of knowledge (and I do use the term ‘zen’ loosely) knowledge-that isn’t the same kind of thing as epistemologists have been talking about for years. And I agree that knowledge-that under this reading is a more instrumental thing – an approximation and a tool for getting on in the world, as you say. But I’d prefer to keep the word ‘knowledge’ and revise its meaning rather than abandon it and find an alternative. But that’s just a matter of opinion.

Michael Kean · 24th January 2010 at 8:11 pm

So would you agree that a child-like conception and knowledge of blue (a range of wavelengths somewhat different to red) is valid, but perhaps not as well defined as a physicist’s? That is, the child-like (0th-/ 1st-order) conception is a mere subset of the physicist’s (0th-/1st-/2nd-order) conception?

And would you agree that that the difference in conceptions is a matter of exposure to events that induce the observer/experiencer to observe similarities and differences (e.g. with shades of blue or purple) as well as differentiate and integrate the concept of blue with other concepts pick up along the way (such as what happens when red is mixed with blue)?

Tim · 24th January 2010 at 9:26 pm

Hi Michael. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘child-like’ in this context. Do you mean ‘simplistic’ or ‘cursory’, or maybe ‘fundamental’? I’ll try to answer your question anyway…

Talk of sub-sets becomes a bit problematic. If you describe 1st-order knowledge in the propositional terms of 2nd-order knowledge, then you can talk about how facts about blueness supervene on facts about wavelengths of light and facts about the brain. But a big bunch of facts about wavelengths of light etc won’t necessarily include all the facts about blueness – things like facts about the phenomenal appreciation of blue. So ‘blue things appear colder than red things to X’ won’t be expressed in terms relating to wavelengths. So the 1st-order knowledge isn’t a sub-set of the 2nd-order knowledge – if that makes sense…

I’m not sure what you mean by your last paragraph, but it sounds suspiciously transcendental to me – that you’re saying you need to be equipped with ideas of ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’ in order to understand ‘red’ from ‘blue’ – although I may be misinterpreting you. But otherwise, yes, one does need to experience some red things and some blue things before one can have appropriate 0th-order or 1st-order knowledge – although one can learn facts (2nd-order) about colour before experiencing it, as in the Knowledge Argument thought experiment.

Not sure if that answers your questions – or if I’ve articulated myself clearly, but it’s a start!

Michael Kean · 25th January 2010 at 9:41 am

I meant fundamental, because I’m a bit worried about so-called 2nd-order knowledge that has no fundamental basis to it. That is, a 2nd-order knowledge without an appropriate lower order knowledge is not concretised and therefore highly susceptible to being twaddle. A bit like a mathematical proposition that is unproven from its unstated axioms. It seems to me there needs to be a hierarchy of concepts that link back to the 0th level for knowledge to actually claim to be knowledge. Not at all transcendental or Plato-ist. Also, child doesn’t need to be equipped with “ideas” of similarity and difference to use them – these ideas can come much, much later…

Tim Dean · 25th January 2010 at 10:29 am

I think I understand what you’re saying. And yes, I would say a lot of 2nd-order knowledge is not grounded in lower level knowledge – not ‘concretised’ as you say (I like that term) – and so a lot of it is twaddle.

Although the analogy with maths is a bit different. Mathematical propositions and their axioms are all at the same level of knowledge. The analogy might fit better to say “a mathematical proposition that has no corresponding analogue in the concrete world”. So talk of complex shapes that don’t appear in the world.

On hierarchy, I do think there is a kind of hierarchy of knowledge – hence the 0th- to 3rd- orders. This is because I believe there is a concrete world. So, knowledge concerning that concrete world does form a hierarchy from the concrete world up to the abstract – with the abstract never perfectly representing the concrete world.

However, I acknowledge the possibility of knowledge that isn’t related to the concrete world – facts about numbers, for example. In some sense, these facts aren’t ‘grounded’ in anything concrete. Like I’d say the concrete world is finite, but there are an infinite number of propositions that can be abstracted from it.

But even the abstract knowledge that isn’t *about* the concrete world is grounded in some sense – because it comes from us, and we’re in and of the concrete world. So in this sense, all 2nd- and 3rd-order knowledge is just understood by us in virtue of us employing 0th- and 1st-order knowledge, if that makes sense.

Michael Kean · 25th January 2010 at 11:16 am

Mostly agreed! Facts about numbers is a very interesting one – and makes us think about just what is a “concrete world” and thus just what would constitute “grounding”.

For example, “infinity” was a huge problem to mathematicians from the time of the ancient Greeks. It took a long, slow process to “concretise” or “instrumentalise” its place in our world – perhaps finally achieved through the development of calculus. From calculus we not only learned a concrete use of infinity, but we could finally legitimise or complete the concept of infinity itself because it helped explain a lot about our concrete or direct world – as well as the not-so-concrete or “indirect” nature of existence in terms of its logical laws. Likewise zero, pi, “e”, etc. and basic arithmetic…

So I would dispute that high order concepts, if they are to qualify as valid knowledge, aren’t grounded in direct (and indirect) existence. Godel’s theorums aside, just because the hierarchy is huge, doesn’t mean we can’t ever theoretically work our way down the appropriate hierarchies to proove its validity. In this sense, does this mean Godel’s theorums perhaps make us think about what we can consider to be complete concepts and what we must still consider incomplete conceptualisations? I’m also not sure tested knowledge has anything to do with “coming from us”, if that is meant in any psychological sense?…

Tim Dean · 25th January 2010 at 12:25 pm

Infinity is an interesting one. I’d say that there are no infinities in the concrete world – infinity is a product of the way we abstract from the concrete world. I guess a somewhat trivial example would be a circle – in some concrete sense a circular thing in the world has finite bounds, but you can trace around its edge indefinitely and find an infinite length.

That’s not to say the idea of infinity isn’t useful, nor that it’s applicable to the concrete through things like calculus. It’s just that there are no infinities *in* the concrete world. There are only infinities in the (imperfect) abstract representations of the concrete world.

I also hasten to add that I’m not drawing too strong a distinction between concrete/abstract or between the world-as-it-is/the world-as-it-appears, as these, too, are products of the way we abstract, compartmentalise and understand the world. In actuality (if that’s the right word) we’re *in and of* the world, and so too are our abstractions. Ceci n’est pas un pipe – it’s not a pipe, but it’s still a painting.

Michael Kean · 25th January 2010 at 8:18 pm

We know their are no infinities in the direct world, but they do explain its form or behaviour indirectly – that was my point about what is really ‘concrete’. Is the concrete strictly what we see resolved in actuality or is it also the indirect that operates in the logical laws that bring actuality about and are a part of it? Is a logical law that explains facts a mere abstraction, and thus by implication a purely subjective understanding just because it explains the world indirectly? For instance is space just an abstraction simply because it cannot be given a set of attributes, even though we know gravity or electromagnetic raditation is related to the square of the distance between two object “in space”? To follow this point to an extreme, is my PC an abstraction simply because if I removed space-time from its existence, it would no longer be as PC, but rather it would be reduced to its own point of singularity within its own black hole?

Tim Dean · 26th January 2010 at 4:31 pm

Like a map – an abstract representation of a particular area – can teach us new things about that area, the map and the marks thereupon aren’t the area itself. So too mathematics – and the infinities therein – can teach us new things about the world, they’re not the world itself.

There is a way the world is – but ‘laws’ are abstract representations of that way the world is. Doesn’t mean it’s subjective.

And your ‘PC’ is an abstraction, at least as a ‘PC’ rather than a clump of the contiguous world. Doesn’t mean the abstraction isn’t ‘real’, but it’s a label, it’s the painting, not the pipe. But it’s not very useful to us to try to shed the all illusions of abstraction – namely our inclination to see abstract things as more ‘real’ than they are. Those abstractions – like ‘PC’ – are terribly useful.

Hence the zen proverb I quote:

At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.

Michael Kean · 26th January 2010 at 10:50 pm

Thanks Tim.

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