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The Nature of Knowledge

August 31, 2001

Let’s call them Jim and Tom. Jim found himself unable to answer Tom when Tom declared that if you can not verbalize something, you can not claim to really know it.

Instead of slashing Tom’s tires, Jim went home and thought about it. There is a certain truth in it.

If I were a teacher, I would make this the working definition of knowledge for grading my students; I would want them to learn to express their thoughts clearly.

However, I would not hold myself to it. For one thing, I don’t believe the converse: that if you can verbalize something, you can claim to know it.

For some comical examples, just read “Fashionable nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science,” by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

Human knowledge is a varied and complicated thing. Tom’s equation is convenient for lawyers and probably necessary for courts of law, but the human experience is full of things we know which we can’t quite express in words.

My stepson has argued — successfully — that he couldn’t explain something to me in words, whether because of limited vocabulary or intelligence, but that he could do so with pictures and examples. In fact, he’s quite good at that. The limitation might be verbal ability, possibly patience, but it’s not intelligence.

When a good mechanic examines an engine, I believe he sees and understands how it works in a complicated non-verbal way, without resorting to mental verse, such as, “The piston bone’s connected to the … cam bone.”

I would guess he doesn’t verbalize a single thing until it becomes necessary to communicate his findings to someone. Then, his knowledge is “translated.”

Now, the value of that knowledge can be questioned. Putting your thoughts into words is a good check of your understanding — of your reasoning, your powers of perception, the correctness of your facts. Words make ideas available for inspection, by you or someone else.

What could we possibly know that we don’t verbalize? I believe painters choose colors without the intervention of names, even though we have many names for colors. They choose by … well … color.

Similarly, musicians must think in notes rather than names of notes. A good guitarist knows when she is in or out of tune. She can play a chord and listen and know. She won’t say to herself, “Hmm. I believe the D string is flat. I must now turn the tuning peg counterclockwise an eighth of a turn.”

But if she is teaching, she might say that. I see a difference between the raw, individual experience of the world and the mediated experience had via words spoken to or heard from others.

When you put the square peg in the square hole, did you think “square” first?

Clearly, this is not a topic for a short column, but I will be thinking more about the nature of human knowledge as my granddaughter, just a week old when you read this, learns about this world. In the wake of Jim and Tom’s discussion, I find myself wondering what it’s like for her right now, observing the world without a word in her head.

Soon enough, when she is two, she will know some things very well, but she will not yet have the words to explain them. She will be quite frustrated.

Since language ability is an integral part of us, can we conceive of human knowledge apart from language? Yes. Take my word for it.

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