Despite knowledge usually being understood either as the recall of facts, or as the application of skills, I have cast doubt on this by suggesting that every fact was produced by a practical skill, or a cluster of such skills. This reduces factual knowledge to mere repetition, and suggests that all knowledge can be understood as a practice. This also means that my case that the Wikipedia knows nothing is even stronger than first suggested: not only are there questions about justifying any claim that was taken solely from a wiki, but any mere database can only collect facts and cannot adequately provide skills; no encyclopaedia is a source of knowledge since facts are not in themselves knowledge. (That said, Wikipedia editors do possess knowledge: the practices of the Wikipedia itself).
This way of understanding knowledge completely replaces the scheme of thought that originated with Plato, namely justified true belief. This principle is a means of explaining why a fact constitutes knowledge: my counterpoint is that facts are a residue of the knowledge that produces them, and are not in themselves knowledge. A proposition that can be said to constitute a fact attains that status via justified true belief – Plato’s scheme is not incorrect, it is just misleading. It suggests knowledge is a question of the validity of beliefs. The important point is not ‘true belief’, but justification: knowledge is that which can provide a justification.
The clearest cases can be found in considering the sciences. If you know that E=mc2, you do not have knowledge unless you possess at least one of the practices that relate to this formula. For instance, I have some basic knowledge of Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence because I can derive the formula from a simple thought experiment using Newton’s equations of motion. I have some mathematical knowledge about this subject. However, the equation itself was just an idea until its meaning was experimentally verified.
In 1932, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton bombarded lithium with protons and produced data that is widely taken to prove mass-energy equivalence. Curiously, however, they were not testing this: they were merely testing the hypothesis that the lithium atoms would disintegrate into two alpha particles when struck with protons. Here is an odd case: the evidence produced as proof for special relativity’s most famous formula came from a special practice, that of the design of a voltage multiplier to use with a discharge tube, intended for another purpose entirely. Who has knowledge in such a case?
I find it helpful to deploy the conception of the sciences developed by Isabelle Stengers, that successful scientists learn how to produce reliable witnesses. Cockcroft and Walton’s experimental practices made lithium atoms into a reliable witness. Bruno Latour adds to this idea the concept of a spokesperson: Cockcroft and Walton were spokespeople for lithium atoms after their experiment. Using these terms we can see that anyone who understands the mathematics of special relativity has knowledge of physics that involves recruiting Cockcroft and Walton and lithium atoms in a chain of reliable witnesses. In an odd yet perfectly understandable way, their practices regarding electrical equipment form part of the knowledge of mass-energy equivalence, broadly construed.
What this example illuminates is that when we conceive of knowledge as a practice, that knowledge is rarely if ever the result of individual capabilities. Knowledge is sustained by networks of practices, chains of reliable witnesses (especially in the sciences) or lineages of techniques (especially in the arts) that distribute what we can be said to know between all those whose practices contribute to that knowledge. Frequently, we cannot even adequately elucidate everyone thus entailed: if we look at a contemporary painting influenced by impressionism, we may be able to name impressionist painters, but what of the practices that made the oil paints, the canvases, the paint brushes?
Knowledge is not just a practice, it is created and sustained by networks of practice that cut across history. Facts are merely the residue of these networks, and remembering them is not having access to the knowledge behind them. And yet, the act of remembering is in itself a kind of practice – especially in subjects such as history, where the facts are connected by causal relations and influences that must be carefully distinguished. Perhaps, then, the facts can still constitute knowledge – provided there is a practice involved in their relation. But we should give up the idea that to know is to repeat propositions that are both true and justified as being so: isolated claims mean nothing. To possess knowledge, we must engage in practices – our own, and those of others too numerous to count.
With thanks to Jeroen D. Stout for the discussions that stimulated this enquiry.