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.