It came home to me for the first time yesterday that those of us who talk about putting knowledge at the heart of education might not be talking about the same thing. In a recent post, I wrote the following:

Philosophers tend to think about knowledge as justified true belief. Getting to grips with this would involve recapping some drawn out, tangled philosophical debates. I’m not going to do that here. Instead I’m going to think about knowledge from the perspective of cognitive science, which can best be thought of as structured collections of information, acquired through perception, or reasoning. This doesn’t have to be justified, or true, or even necessarily believed, it just has to be stored in the repositories of our long-term memory. Our brains are as full of misconceptions, confusions and falsehoods as they are anything.

This seemed to me to be a relatively uncontroversial position to take, but it seems I can’t just dismiss the epistemology of knowledge quite so easily as this thread makes abundantly clear:

To my way of thinking, knowledge and schemas can be viewed interchangeably and learning – the production of new knowledge – is defined as change in our schemas. Everything we are – our personality, experiences, preferences, thoughts and feelings – are all stored in memory. There is nothing outside of these biological processes; mind and body are not distinct, and there is no need for a ‘little man’ or spooky stuff to explain how and why we do what we do. We are the product of evolution through natural selection and so everything we are must be explicable in terms of evolutionary theory. We should be suspicious of any explanation of how a trait came to be selected that doesn’t satisfy the demands of evolutionary theory.

As I explained here, knowledge can be acquired socially or asocially. Asocial learning – that which is acquired first hand through trial and error is very likely to result in a justified true belief about the world, but social learning – copying what others are doing – can easily lead to mistakes, either through copying errors or through copying behaviour that was itself mistaken. This can result in us acquiring knowledge that isn’t true, but, of course, we act as if it is.

Apparently my interpretation of knowledge is rather eccentric and subject to no end of dispute and debate. If however you consider the dictionary definition at the start of this post, I’m not sure my contention is quite as unusual as all that. The online psychology dictionary defines knowledge as “An awareness of the existence of something and information and understanding of a specific topic of the world in general which is usually acquired by experience or learning”. This strikes me as a more useful, practical definition than that offered by philosophers.

If we allow that knowledge is only justified true belief, what do we do with tacit, procedural knowledge: the knowledge of how to ride a bike or tie one’s shoelaces? This kind of knowledge cannot be reduced to a set of propositions because we don’t know how we’re able to ride a bike, we can just do it. If you try to explain to someone else how to do it, you end giving meaningless instructions like “just balance”. So, from this perspective, we’d have to conclude that knowledge is, at the least, justified true beliefs and tacit, procedural knowledge. This seems like an unnecessarily messy, and, dare ~I say it – overly nuanced – category.

What I want is a word that can be used to describe the stuff we think with and about. We have to call it something and knowledge seems like a useful, catchall term. Obviously it’s also useful to distinguish between different types of knowledge and here I’m happy to accept Aristotle’s three categories of knowledge: episteme, techne and phronesis. Episteme, propositional knowledge, is what we know, whereas techne, procedural knowledge, is ‘know how,’ and is basically synonymous with ‘skill’. Phronesis, often translated as practical knowledge or practical wisdom, is perhaps best thought of as tacit knowledge and is made up of things we’re unable to articulate and don’t necessarily know we know. I’m also willing to agree that when it comes to propositional knowledge, the label of justified true beliefs fits pretty well, but I’m not at all happy to accept that this is the sum of what is meant by ‘knowledge’.

So, here’s my point: all the things we know have to be stored in memory (where else?) and anything we remember we can be said to know, regardless of its epistemic status. What we know is what we both think with and about; we cannot think about things of which we are unaware. Obviously it’s preferable to know things which provide accurate, reliable information about the world and its workings, but cognition will still occur even if we’ve learned lots of erroneous nonsense. The human mind has, as far as I’m aware, no mechanism for rejecting falsehoods and misconceptions and refusing to think about them; our cognition is only as good as the knowledge we’ve acquired.

This biological account of how knowledge (stuff we think with and about) is stored, accessed and utilised is an attempt to describe what we actually do. I’m trying to unify three separate areas – thought, memory and knowledge – to show that they are essentially the same (or at least, more similar than they are different). It’s all very well to say what knowledge should be or how we’d prefer the world worked, but if our preferences contradict observable reality, we need to go back to first principles and establish what is. My views on knowledge may well be wrong, but this is an empirical question. I think the ideas I have advanced make up a plausible hypothesis that needs to be falsified. The only way I think this can be done is through logical reasoning, observation (and maybe mathematical modelling).

I believe I have demonstrated through reasoned argument that knowledge is that which we think with and about. This is a defeasible claim. If you can show how thinking cannot occur with or about anything which is not a justifiable true belief, I will graciously accept that I’m in the wrong.