In this article we are going to talk about the different ways in which you can have knowledge of things, the difference between know-how and know-that.

Intellectualist Tradition

In the past, there was this school of philosophers named the intellectualists, and they thought that all knowledge could be written down in the form of propositions. A proposition is basically a sentence that can be true or false. For example the sentence: “it is raining.” Or “2 + 2 equals 4.” So, these intellectualists thought that everything we know could be written down in this form. Even the way you ride a bicycle, this can also be written down in propositions. Something like, you put your feet on the pedals, and then peddle them to gain momentum, and finally try to keep you balance. 

Gilbert Ryle: Know-How and Know-That

But then came this philosopher named Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) who argued against this. 

He was the first person to make the distinction between know-that and know-how. So, know-that is just factual knowledge you have that can indeed be written down in the form of propositions. For example, historical facts like that world war 2 began in 1939 and ended in 1945.  

But then there is also “Know-how”. This works entirely different than know-that. Know-how is also referred to as tacit or embodied knowledge. And this is that you ‘know’ how to do stuff but can’t really express this in words. This is stuff like riding your bicycle. Or when you do sports. These are things that can be quite difficult to completely explain in words how you do it. You just do it. You learn by doing. 

Image of Gilbert Ryle

Michael Polanyi and Tacit Knowledge

So, Ryle was the first guy to make this distinction between know-how and know-that. In 1958 Michael Polanyi wrote a book called Personal Knowledge, and here he called this form of practical knowledge: tacit knowledge. Tacit means implicit, so without being explicitly stated. He states in this book that we know more than we can express in words. This is then our tacit knowledge.

Image of Michael Polanyi

Nowadays it is widely accepted that we have these different ways of knowing stuff. While a hundred years ago this was not so obvious for anyone. But today, we also have confirmation from the field of psychology that this is true. There are different kinds of memory. You have procedural memory, and this is a more unconscious form of memory. You learn something by doing it and the next time you do it you remember how to do it. This can all happen without you consciously paying attention to the task. But then there is also explicit memory and that is just the factual stuff that you can recall consciously. So, we have these two systems in our body basically. One is more embodied, unconscious and tacit, and the other one is explicit and conscious. 

Language and AI

One interesting thing we all learn tacitly is language itself. You learned your native language not by learning all the rules at school. Of course you did have grammar lessons and stuff at some point during your education. But you already learned to speak the language to a significant degree without all of this. There are many people who can barely recite any grammar rules at all, but speak a language almost perfectly. How is that possible? Well by tacit knowledge of course. Our body somehow knows more than we consciously do ourselves. And the funny thing is that linguists are trying to formulate this tacit knowledge for many years. They want to formulate the rules of the language game we all play. We all know the rules, but we know it implicitly. They are trying to make it explicit. 

This raises an interesting point. So, we all have implicit knowledge on various things. For example on how to learn a language. But is it possible at some point to make all of this knowledge explicit? Is it possible to formulate all the rules of the practical stuff we do all the time? 

The answer to this question will also determine for a part how far we are able to take artificial intelligence. We have had a lot of trouble making robots walk, and catching balls and stuff. This is because all of these activities rely heavily on tacit knowledge. You know how to walk easily, but can we ever formulate all the rules required to walk like a human? 

We would love to hear what you think. Do you think that all of these implicit things we know can be formulated in rules for robots? Or are there some tacit things that can never be articulated in words.


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