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The Nature of Knowledge

December 8, 2003

Twenty-seven months ago, we discussed in this column the nature of knowledge and in particular non-verbal knowledge.(*) My granddaughter was one week old. It was cause for reflection.

Don’t worry. I won’t repeat what you already know — that my granddaughter is the smartest little thing on this planet.

Although, she has a little friend who might be smarter. How can you possibly judge at this age? After a continual barrage of syllables, words, and startling new phrases, that lasts for minutes but seems like hours, suddenly you realize that they’re talking to you, clearly, and it’s very important.

Another little friend seems to be struggling a little, growing up with English and French. She has a wonderful French accent, even when she’s not intelligible.

She provides a perfect example of nonverbal knowledge. She knows things, wants things, figures things out, and demonstrates political skills. But she has had little success expressing it all in words.

Immediately we see the weakness in my thesis: She doesn’t “express” what she knows. For all we know, the thoughts are quite well formed as words in her mind. The trick is in saying them.

We know that “Milo” doesn’t really mean Milo anymore but rather any of a number of videos: Barney, Elmo, Milo, Rudolph, Jungle Book, Baby Einstein, or other Baby Famous Person.

I think Milo refers not just to a video title but to a complex experience involving place (living room), comfort (bed, pillow, bottle, entertainment), and relative solitude (no pressure to eat things that are good for her or to be nice to others).

Yet she knows. The question — how do we know what we know — has occurred to everyone at some point, as well as the question — what do we really know?

I thought about it as a young person, as young people do today. A reporter, Elli Bishop, reflected on the matter in a recent Tenderfoot Times, the high school newspaper.

The last three books I’ve read have touched on this topic in different ways. Dancer Twyla Tharp reminded me of the old column when she discussed muscle memory in her book “The creative habit.”
Each of the books touches on knowledge and nonconformity, and even their cover art is similar.

The cover of “Why not?” shows a young boy in flight goggles and a cape with his arms spread wide in exuberant fantasy.

The cover of “Why societies need dissent” shows a man standing at soapbox height above an urban crowd with his arms outstretched holding a stick and a megaphone in his white-gloved hands. He’s oddly dressed, but not so odd that he doesn’t remind you of some people you know.

Twyla’s book pictures her sitting atop a tall stepladder in an otherwise empty, white room.

All point up the value of individual knowledge. “Why not?” is as much about dissent as “Why societies need dissent.” Along with Twyla’s, they are about seeing things differently.

“Why societies need dissent” is most expository about it: When people have dissenting opinions but conform silently anyway, for what ever reasons, they fail to express what they know. They effectively deprive society of the benefit of their knowledge.
Mistakes are as much a consequence of poor knowledge as poor judgement. Dissent helps protect us. It should be welcomed. You know that, don’t you?

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