In one comment to my previous post, the question of “episteme (knowing that) versus techne (knowing how)” was brought up. Traditional epistemology focuses very much on propositional knowledge and its truth conditions, i.e. knowledge in the form of statements. The reason for this focus might go back to antiquity, where a clear hierarchy of different forms of knowledge was seen and “techne” (τέχνη) was assigned an inferior position, whereas “episteme” (ἐπιστήμη), a term that can be translated as “science” in some contexts but might just refer to knowledge in the sense of “knowing that” – as indicated by that commentator – was seen as a superior and more interesting form of knowledge.
Most philosophers of those times where aristocrats, who left physical labor to slaves and women. The topics viewed as worthy of their attention and time where theoretical considerations and political discussions, not practical work and practical activity (perhaps with the exception of warfare and sports). Consequently, a philosophy of technology first appears much later, in the 19th century. And although the social structures changed considerably, epistemology (as the name of the discipline implies) remained largely concerned with propositional knowledge and its truth conditions. The other discipline relevant here, logic, comes out of the same tradition, as indicated by its name which is derived from the word “logos” (λόγος), a term with many meanings but originally referring to language.
In my previous article, however, I had hinted at a procedural concept of knowledge. In this view, pieces of knowledge may be viewed as little programs. If you come from the classic western philosophical tradition, such a view might indeed look surprising, so let me try to explain it in more detail.
For a bit of knowledge in the sense of “techne” (knowing how), it appears as quite straight-forward to be viewed as a program. For example, if you drive a car, there seems to be something like an automatic program coordinating your movements but also processing sensual, especially visual, input, so that you can drive without much conscious thought of it, once you have mastered the skill (see also “On the Philosophy of Taxi Driving”).
But what about knowledge about facts? Let’s stay with that example of car driving. Suppose you want to visit a friend and you know that he is living in a particular street. You know that that street is connected to another street and that that second street is connected to the street where you are. You can now use that knowledge (of the “knowing that” variety) to construct a plan of how to drive to your friend’s place. Clearly, that plan can, again, be seen as something procedural, an instance of “knowing how”. So know-how can be derived from “know-that”. Moreover, as I said, you are “using” that knowledge. So there is some kind of process going on. One could think of this process (of planning the way) as the execution of a program.
When you execute your plan and drive to your friends place, there seems to be another program that executes the plan (and “knows” how to translate it into single movements). In computer science, a program that executes another program is called an “interpreter”. You can think of an interpreter as a program with two entries (or “parameters”, to use a more technical term). You put the “program” into one parameter and the “data” the program is supposed to work on into the other. The interpreter will then apply the program to the data, and produce a result. (Note that the concept of an interpreter as it is used here is connected to the concept of an “(object) projector” I have introduced in Generating Objects – Towards a Procedural Ontology).
The planning process can also be thought of as the execution of a program. Its input is the knowledge about the network of streets, the knowledge about where you currently are and the knowledge about where you want to go. Its output is the plan.
You may now view this planning process as an interpreter as well. The knowledge about the street network then appears as a program. The information about where you are and where you go to is the data. The output is the plan (or, if you treat the interpreter for the plan as part of a larger interpreter comprising both), the output is a sequence of movements that finally brings you to your destination. In this view, the declarative knowledge about the street knowledge (“knowing that”) is treated as a high level program.
As this example is demonstrating, declarative or propositional knowledge can be treated as a program, as soon as it is used for something. More generally, any kind of data that influences the processing of some other data (e.g. a graphical representation of a map or a representation of the map in terms of a set of database tables) can be viewed as a program, if you look at it in the context of some system interpreting it. The meaning of the high level program depends on that interpreting system, so taken alone, its meaning might be vague, but in the context of a specific system processing it, it can be viewed as a program.
The distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that”, therefore, is not as fundamental as it appears in traditional philosophy. It is a matter of the level of description you apply. I think that traditional epistemology has limited itself unnecessarily by this concentration on propositional knowledge, just as traditional logic has limited itself by excluding the procedural character of inferences from consideration. In the evolution of our species, procedural knowledge probably precedes propositional knowledge. I suppose that procedural knowledge is the primary one and that other forms of knowledge, especially propositional knowledge, are implemented on top of this procedural world. This “propositional bubble” embedded into the procedural environment is always incomplete and partially vague since the processes beneath it, processes that interpret, use and change it, may change. If we limit epistemology to what is inside this “bubble”, we are therefore always limited and perhaps here is one of the sources of the problems of traditional approaches to philosophy and logic. We are not getting the complete picture if we only look at propositional statements.
So I suggest that we investigate possibilities of developing “epistemology” into a discipline dealing with “techne” as well (unfortunately, the term “technology” that suggests itself here is already occupied). Approaches into this direction have traditionally been dismissed as “psychologistic”, but in a time of artificial information processing systems, we are no longer tied exclusively to psychology here and can investigate such matters in a more general framework (e.g., the car driving example can be investigated in the context of electronic navigation systems and self-driving cars as well). However, the separation of epistemology from psychology is in itself a symptom of that anti-practical bias.
Perhaps philosophy is, in parts, still suffering here from the anti-practical biases of antique philosophers. It is time to finally change that, to go beyond the agora and enter the workshops.
(The picture, showing a historical map, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Atlas_Ortelius_KB_PPN369376781-001av-001br.jpg. It shows and example of how knowledge can be represented in a non-procedural way, in a mixture of graphics and language. This knowledge is incomplete and partially faulty, but it could be turned into the procedural actions of a ship’s captain and crew, by applying the sailor’s knowledge to it as the “interpreter”. This would lead into situations that would then give rise to its incremental correction.)