Retrenching a Republic to a Band of Bloggers (Reply)
How to Run Discworld Noir

Factual Knowledge

Spines What does it mean to say you have knowledge of something? Either that you know the facts, or that you know how to do something. In some cases that you know the facts, because you know how to do something – the practical skills of mechanics give them many of the facts about engine maintenance, for instance. But in what sense does remembering a fact constitute knowledge?

By ‘facts’ we mean those things that are known to be true – irrespective of how this is ascertained or justified. This wider question of justification was precisely what led me to suggest that the Wikipedia knows nothing, based on the usual construal of knowledge as justified true belief. Yet knowing a fact does not mean we are able to reproduce the conditions by which it is known to be true; this would be rather difficult in many cases. How exactly would you demonstrate that it was true that the city of Constantinople fell in 1453 AD, or for that matter that the city of Istanbul was captured in 857 AH? Knowing the facts by themselves usually means little more than remembering something that you heard was true, and continuing to assert it as true.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the school of philosophy that was soon to be termed ‘analytic’ was keenly focussed on logic, since this was the aspect of philosophy and mathematics that dealt with truth, which was taken to be fundamental on the basis of Plato’s work. Bertrand Russell’s concept of logical atomism (first expounded in 1911), inspired by the early work of his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein, was based on the idea that the world could be understood as being comprised of facts, about which we could have beliefs that would be (logically) true or false. The relationship with Plato’s thought is clear, and logical atomism in effect shored up the construal of knowledge as justified true belief discussed last week. However, it is far from clear that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – upon which Russell built logical atomism and the logical positivists built their project of elevating the sciences above all other ways of knowing – was intended to be used this way.

Wittgenstein’s own view of his early philosophy seems to have been that it attempted to lay out the mistakes that philosophers are apt to make by building theories to address problems that are at root problems of language. His claim in proposition 1.1 of that work that “the world is the totality of facts”, and similarly in proposition 4.01 that “a proposition is a picture of reality”, were thus not meant to endorse the stated ideas (as Russell and the logical positivists did) but to explore the problems that would follow from doing so. The implications of this have still not been taken seriously by the tradition of analytic philosophy set in motion at this juncture, and Wittgenstein spent the rest of his career trying to undermine what he had inadvertently set in motion.

Regardless of Wittgenstein’s own views, a great many people would support his proposition that “the world is the totality of facts”, at least in principle. To have the facts is thus to have knowledge of the world, and some subset of all the facts that might be asserted constitute what is called in English ‘general knowledge’. While any catalogue of general knowledge might contain any number of different facts, for every cultural context the truth of the vast majority of the propositions in circulation is not really in doubt. Factual knowledge is thus cultural knowledge, a point that comes out clearly in French and Spanish which render the concept as culture générale or cultura general. The fact that Everest is the tallest mountain in the world is certainly a part of the general knowledge of Great Britain, whose colonial surveyors measured it and named it thus; it might also be true in Nepal that Sagarmāthā is the tallest mountain in the world, or true of Chomolungma in Tibet, but anyone in English who replied that Chomolungma was the tallest mountain in the world would need to provide the additional explanation to demonstrate that this fact still accorded with general knowledge.

Factual knowledge like this is precisely what an encyclopaedia aims to collect and present, as indeed is also the case for an almanac. In such cases, we trust in the authority of the people who have compiled the reference book or database when we take the propositions they contain as facts. That trust is part of our justification for accepting them as true; it is why our belief in it is considered justified. But in each such case, the production of the fact itself – the height of a mountain above sea-level, for instance, or the history of a city – involved the application of skills. Every fact was derived by a practice, or a collection of practices: geometry and the use of a theodolite provided the height of Everest; calenders, record-making, and the interpretation of records provide the history of the city at the mouth of the Bosphorus.

This being so, it would seem as if there are not two kinds of knowledge at all, since factual knowledge rests at its core upon practical skills. It is these practices that have the authentic claim to knowledge – knowing ‘the facts’ without the practices that underlie them is only trusting that you are connected by a chain of reliable witnesses to those who do possess the relevant skills. The extent to which we truly share in the knowledge being conveyed in such a way will always be limited by the extent we understand the relevant practices. Factual knowledge is nothing but repeating.

This enquiry concludes in Knowledge as a Practice, next week.

My thanks to everyone on Twitter who helped me explore the 'general knowledge' concept via different languages, namely Oscar Strik, ðaryl, Late Tide, Rémy Boicherot, Miguel Sicart, Adrian Froschauer, Jacek Wesołowski and Ewa Stasiak.


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Hi Chris - Some rather hastily-typed comments follow. I reserve the right to amend or even refute my own views later!
I believe you are basically correct in saying that factual knowledge rests on practical skills. Those would be the skills needed to find things out, presumably. But we need to be careful how we talk about skills. If a skill is understood as the application of a set of facts relevant to the object of that skill (taking "skilled mechanic" to mean "knowing a lot about car engines", for instance) then we are going around in circles.
One thing that strikes me about skilled people, and about those few areas where I myself have some notable skill, is that apparent lack of concious mental effort that goes into exercising the skill. Skilled people know what to do without thinking much about it. Even in fields that you might think depend heavily on factual knowledge - medicine, say - the skills really show when things are achieved without thinking. A physician who diagnoses your condition immediately upon examining you appears skillful. You might not feel so sure about one who has to deliberate on how to apply his or her factual knowledge. Likewise, anyone who has learned to play the guitar knows that while a knowledge of scales and harmony might help you figure out how to play chords and memorising chord diagrams will help you remember where to put your fingers whether you understand the harmonic principles or not, it is knowing the feel of the chord under your fingers and the sound you get that counts as skill. In each case - a prompt diagnosis or a smartly-made chord change - the skilled practitioner feels a certain satisfied contentment. If the patient's symptoms don't fit with any known diagnostic profile or the chord doesn't feel or sound right, the practitioner's skillfulness comes into question and s/he feels anxious and unsure. It is in the development of habits that can be relied upon to usually give the feelings of satisfied contentment that the individual's real knowledge lies.
If I read in Wikipedia that Everest is the highest mountain in the world, one empirical experience I've gained is that of seeing what Wikipedia says on the subject. As you say, whatever I think I believe beyond that depends on a network of trust that may be misplaced. Another thing I've gained, however, is the satisfying feeling that I know something I can say in certain contexts that can make me sound knowledgeable. As long as other believe the same as me, or don't know what to believe, I can pass myself off as knowing something about Everest without ever having been near the thing. This works fine if my interest in Everest is casual. If I was actually going to climb it, however, the value of documentary information ("facts about Everest") I collect beforehand lies in the extent to which it helps me focus my attention. Being knowledgeably prepared in that way gives me the feeling of confidence that my experience of climbing Everest will be a good one. After the expedition, I'll have developed new habits and those will be my new knowledge. Whether that knowledge is "about" Everest lies in the way I decide to talk about it.

Hi petermx,
Thanks for your commentary here. You anticipate the final part of this short serial in some respects.

"If a skill is understood as the application of a set of facts relevant to the object of that skill (taking 'skilled mechanic' to mean 'knowing a lot about car engines', for instance) then we are going around in circles."

Aye, it is for this reason that next week I present the view of 'knowledge as a practice' that motivates this whole enquiry. The equation of facts with knowledge is an unproductive way of understanding all the fields that exercise or generate knowledge. What I am exploring here is the extent to which we can completely ditch this view.

(And it was convenient that, after drafting the three pieces, I realized that Wittgenstein's purpose in the Tractatus might actually have been parallel to mine! It's the first time I've been able to conceptually connect the Tractatus to Wittgenstein's later work, actually).

"It is in the development of habits that can be relied upon to usually give the feelings of satisfied contentment that the individual's real knowledge lies."

I quite agree. Even in cases where the knowledge *could* be expressed as propositions, converting the skill into factual claims is not exporting the skill at all: it is merely recording some outcomes in relation to it.

"Another thing I've gained, however, is the satisfying feeling that I know something I can say in certain contexts that can make me sound knowledgeable."

For the purpose of the claims I was making, I decided not to defend the claim that remembering trivia was in itself a practice that could be considered knowledge. I think this is the safest approach to this small point. I don't think we should reason from the claim that learning trivia can be satisfying to the claim that trivia-learning is a skill, in the sense that the other examples given are skills. Satisfaction is not evidence of a skill, per se - consider the satisfying meal.

Trivia is a way of participating in knowledge at its periphery; after it has been translated into mere factual knowledge. That kid of information may be an ingredient in knowledge practices - your diagnosis case is a good example of this - but in all such cases remembering the trivia is not enough to qualify for having knowledge.

Hope you enjoy the final piece tomorrow!


I believe I understand well enough why you want to exclude trivial knowledge, but I would not want to be so quick to dismiss it. There’s no boundary between “significant” and “trivial”, they’re different regions on a gradient and the gradient lies differently for each individual. Even the most “trivial” knowledge will be significant learning for someone – a child at least. It seems to me that an epistemology (or dissolution of epistemology, perhaps) ought to take children’s learning into account.

Likewise, while I believe I understand you regarding satisfaction, I would not want to dismiss the satisfaction of a good meal. Learning how to feed ourselves and what’s good to eat (skill in choosing and preparing food) is actually bloody important! One can go on learning ever-advancing culinary skills throughout life, of course, but most of us learn basic nutrition so early in life and in such unremarkable (to us now) ways that we hardly regard it as learning at all. However, I think the dismissal of these very basic forms of learning is more a reflection of the preoccupations of those who dominated and defined the history of epistemology than an objective discrimination between significant and trivial knowledge or learning.

There seems little reason to believe we acquire any newly sophisticated or advanced facility for learning when we mature. In fact, if anything, the opposite appears to be more likely. A focus on ‘mature’ learning is really a focus on rationalized or language-mediated learning. That, I suspect, has more to do with social compliance than learning to better negotiate the world.

More later, I hope. I look forward to your next article.

Hi petermx,
The distinction I am marking with the term 'trivia' isn't between significance and triviality, but between isolated facts (trivia) and knowledge as a practice (see the final part). The knowledge a child acquires is seldom trivia, but simple practices for living in the world they find themselves in. There is genuine (trivial) knowledge here. :)

My only point about the satisfying meal was that satisfaction is not de facto evidence of knowledge. But I suppose we could find (trivial) knowledge in how to feed ourselves - although there is far more impressive knowledge in how to cook! Surely no-one would consider the gourmand to be a better example of knowledge than the chef?

"A focus on ‘mature’ learning is really a focus on rationalized or language-mediated learning."

I suppose. I don't believe I have this bias towards mature learning, though. I am always interested in how my children learn about the world, and the knowledge they acquire is rarely if ever in the form of isolated facts (and when it is, the facts are usually presented to me as nonsense!). It is what they can do that shows what they have learned, not what they can repeat.

See what you make of the final part, anyway... ;)


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