What do you call it when you don't really know something until you've experienced it?
February 5, 2008 12:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for labels for ways of knowing, in particular, the kind of knowledge that you won't understand until you've experienced it.

There are certain kinds of knowledge that people can be told, but not really understand until they've experienced it. A good example is: you can be told that your life is going to change when you have kids, but you don't really understand until you've had kids. Is there a name for this? Is there a discipline that studies this?

My undergraduate psychology text book talks about different ways of knowing (tenacity, authority, reason, common sense, and science). This is headed in the right direction, but I'm looking for a more sophisticated treatment.

Maybe something on the nature of experience as a teacher might be helpful? I'm wondering if I should look at Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences.

Also, there was a previous ask mefi question on tacit knowledge in Greek philosophy. It pointed me at some useful material from Aristotle and The Nicomachean Ethics.
Phronesis and techne are tantalizingly close, but Aristotle didn't hold them in high regard.

Are there better terms that I can use or cite?
posted by mausburger to Science & Nature (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sounds like what you're basically talking about is a posteriori knowledge, which is generally based on empirical evidence.
posted by dersins at 12:16 PM on February 5, 2008


"A posteriori" is an epistemological term that covers knowledge based on experience. Though it isn't based in the psychological spirit i think your question is asking, it is in the same family.

On preview: what he said!
posted by strangememes at 12:17 PM on February 5, 2008


Knowledge by acquaintance
posted by inconsequentialist at 12:18 PM on February 5, 2008


existential epistemology?
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:20 PM on February 5, 2008


There's a thought experiment, Mary's room, that might interest you. The main question is delves into the heart of a priori and a posteriori.
It also brings up another term, qualia, "an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us" (from the article).
posted by strangememes at 12:36 PM on February 5, 2008


I'm afraid that the term "a posteriori knowledge" is not what you are looking for. An example of a posteriori knowledge is that the sky is blue. It is a posteriori knowledge because it was learned through study of the empirical world (namely, someone went out one day and looked up at the sky). That doesn't mean that everyone needs to go outside and look up at the sky in order to know, for themselves, that the sky is blue. Another example: it is a bit of a posteriori that there are black swans. I have never seen a black swan, but I still know that it is true.

Knowledge by acquaintance sounds more like it.

(Also, I'm pretty sure that Schopenhauer made the distinction you're looking for, but, for the life of me, I cannot remember it. I'll try to find it.. But, all the same, I'd assume the erudite terminology of a lesser-known philosopher probably won't help you out too much to begin with.)
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:42 PM on February 5, 2008


Pardon my typo: it is a bit of a posteriori knowledge that there are black swans.
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:45 PM on February 5, 2008


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about knowledge. That might help you searching. Off the top of my head, these three terms might help in searching for discussions of this point:

"ineffable" = can't be put into words. Some philosophers say that sensory experience is like this. For example, if you've been raised in a black and white environment, nobody can tell you what it will be like to see red for the first time.

"experiential knowledge" or "first-hand knowledge" might be ways to describe what you're talking about.

"know how" is for skills like riding a bicycle, as contrasted with "know that" for knowledge of facts.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:47 PM on February 5, 2008


"Knowledge by acquaintance" might help. It contrasts with "knowledge by description".

Many of these terms cover a wider range of cases than what you're interested in, though, probably -- because I can know what my office looks like by acquaintance, and I could know yours only by description, but that doesn't seem to be the same kind of "I can never really know your office if I haven't experienced it myself" feeling as "I can never really know what it's like to be a parent without doing it myself". I mean, in some sense that's true, but I think you're looking for something to describe a certain narrower and more elusive kind of experience than just ordinary "I haven't been to that streetcorner, so I can't really know what it's like."
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:52 PM on February 5, 2008


Thanks for the great pointers, please keep them coming.

So far, Russell's knowledge by acquaintance is the closest. However, my reading of his distinction is between knowledge with sense data and knowledge without sense data. I think from a philosophical point of view that this is the correct term, but it doesn't deal with repeated exposure and experience. For instance, you become more certain of your knowledge with more sense data, or sense data from multiple instances or multiple occasions.

LobsterMitten, I looked at epistemology in the process of following the previous ask mefi question. There were some interesting leads that didn't pan out. I like the terms "experiential knowledge" and "first-hand knowledge," but good citations for them aren't jumping out.
posted by mausburger at 1:20 PM on February 5, 2008


Hmm, I'm surprised "experiential knowledge" isn't yielding citations. That's what I've always heard it called.
posted by tkolar at 2:04 PM on February 5, 2008


I think that the Aristotelian concept of "practical wisdom" is precisely what you're getting at. He discusses this in the Nichomachean Ethics. It's been a while since I've read Aristotle, but I recall that he describes practical wisdom as being gained by emulating those who are already wise. It cannot be reduced to a book; it cannot be learned solely from a book, but is inculcated significantly by habit and emulation.
posted by jayder at 2:07 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


embodied knowledge what was my professor called it
posted by alkupe at 2:10 PM on February 5, 2008


I think Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method delves into this concept in some detail.
posted by nasreddin at 2:30 PM on February 5, 2008


I've heard it called 'experiential learning'.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:00 PM on February 5, 2008


mausburger: There are certain kinds of knowledge that people can be told, but not really understand until they've experienced it.

Is this true? You're assuming that it is, and I think that's why you're having difficulty finding good references to it. There are a couple of things at play in your question, prior questions that have to be answered, and there are certainly a lot of people that talk about these questions.

What do you mean by 'knowledge'? Do you think of knowing as being the action of a mind perceiving a thing, like an eye sees? Do you refer mostly to the certainty of it? You seem to use the words knowledge and understanding interchangeably; are they the same thing?

Also, your example, although familiar, seems extremely vague. You say:

A good example is: you can be told that your life is going to change when you have kids, but you don't really understand until you've had kids.

When you are first told this before having kids, do you know it? Do you understand it? I'm very familiar with what you're trying to express, as it's a common modern conception. I think you don't mean that parenthood is the verification of the statement that parenthood will change your life, that that observation is the empirical evidence that proves that the statement is true. If that's what you meant, then I don't believe you would've used the word 'understanding,' since a scientist always understands the hypothesis; she merely verifies it or disproves it. I think you're saying that, to continue with the analogy, during the course of the experiment the scientist comes to understand the hypothesis better that she did at the beginning.

Which would mean that you're saying two things. First, an experience can lead to an understanding of a statement. You don't understand what change someone is referring to when they say "having kids will change your life" until you undergo that change yourself. Second, within that understanding of the meaning of the statement is a knowledge that it's true.

What was missing? Why didn't you understand what was meant by the statement 'your life will change when you have kids' before you experienced it? Why didn't you know it was true? One could object to the kind of knowledge you're talking about by saying that all you needed was someone who could explain more effectively and comprehensively what the statement meant. If you read certain novels, for example, about parenthood, you might experience that 'understanding' and that 'knowing' that is purported to be experienced by parents.

If you argue against the person who objects like that, you have to respond to them that certain kinds of knowing can't be explained, and certain kinds of understanding can't be communicated. This is a more extreme formulation of the position you're describing, but it's a popular one, especially today. That's why LobsterMitten mentions 'the ineffable.' If something can't be explained, then it's ineffable.

There are a few tough things about defending this position. First, again, what do we mean by understanding? It's very difficult to imagine an understanding that can't put what it understands into words. It might be possible, but in what sense is it understanding? It is not understanding about the truth of a statement, since a statement is words, and the understanding, the knowledge, is ineffable. Second, as the person who objected to us demonstrated above, it's hard to claim that we've exhausted the avenues for putting a thing into words. It's hard to point to a case where it is definitively true that a thing cannot be put into words. Generally, in fact, I think it's hard to put limits like that on thoughtfulness and its capabilities.

Aristotle agrees with you, but not in the sense that you're hoping he does, I think. He teaches, roughly, that all understanding arises from sense perception, and that the faculties of imagination and the intellect (which might be the same thing) have the objects of sense perception as their matter. St. Thomas Aquinas agrees with him. In plain language, you could say that he's claiming that you can't imagine or understand anything that isn't composed of sense perceptions; when you think of a spirit, for example, you think of fog or a cloud, because that's an object of your sense perception. In short, if we haven't experienced a thing, we can't imagine it, and we can't understand anything that has qualities that we have not experienced. But that's not precisely what you're talking about; for Aristotle, understanding of future possibilities or potential situation might be possible if we've experienced the qualities of that situation before. This is an extremely loose way to apply this to your example, but: since we've been children before, and we've known other children and other parents, we can reason about what it's like to be a parent. Or we might not; it's hard to say, although Aristotle, I think, would like to say that we can know that sort of thing, and many things.

I believe that, at least in terms of your example, it's hard to say that your statement is true. I don't think that what you're describing as 'knowing' really is knowledge. Trivially, of course, I can bring up the example of people who've had children without knowing it; but if you eliminate those people and say I'm being silly and that I clearly know what you mean by "having children," then I can respond: what is knowledge, then? I'd submit that most of the parents I know who feel as though they know now what it means to be a parent and how it necessarily changes their lives simply have a strong hunch, and strong hunches often turn out to be wrong. Think of all the times that you've been told: "you won't understand until you're older." Was that always true? Did experiencing things really change it-- or would you have begun to understand if someone had just explained it to you using concepts you already had experienced? That feeling of certainty about things that says 'well, I can't explain it, you just have to experience it' seems highly suspect to me, and chiefly because I've always found that, when I experience the thing they're talking about, I invariably find that the experience doesn't give me knowledge, but rather observation from which I can jump to conclusions if I'm feeling game.

Knowledge is a tough one.
posted by koeselitz at 3:29 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I guess my point was, briefly: I don't think most philosophers would say that there is such a thing as what you're talking about. If they believe that knowledge is possible at all, generally they don't say it works like that.
posted by koeselitz at 3:34 PM on February 5, 2008


Is this true?

Anecdote: Describe the color "red" to a person that has been blind from birth. You can either see red and understand what it is, or you can be described red in subjective relation to other colors ("if you subtract blue from magenta, you get red...") or other forms of measurements ("red is X wavelength"), but neither are helpful in this case.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:38 PM on February 5, 2008


But that's not exactly knowledge, or it's not what mausburger seems to mean by knowledge. Red isn't a statement, it's a perception. If you haven't experience the sense perception of sight, it is difficult to describe, and although it'd be hard for me to say that it'd be impossible, I might come close. But (though I may be harping) the example isn't about sense perception; it's about a certain relationship we have with other human beings.

There's a wonderfully fanciful philosophical tale by the tenth-century philosopher and teacher Ibn Tufayl entitled Hayy the son of Yaqzan. It's about a man who is born and grows to maturity in complete isolation, on an island devoid of other humans where there happens to be plenty of food and shelter for him. He is able to reason and to deduce much about the world's nature, but knows nothing about the political art, never having met human beings. That man would have no perception of the relation of parenthood; there are plenty of strange things about this story, but at least we could imagine that he'd have a good deal of trouble understanding parenting.
posted by koeselitz at 3:57 PM on February 5, 2008


koeselitz, you're wrong, even if your comment is insightful as usual. The question of experiential knowledge has been debated pretty extensively by both analytic and continental philosophers--especially in the context of qualia, but in other contexts as well.
posted by nasreddin at 4:01 PM on February 5, 2008


Or, rather, you're wrong about "most philosophers."
posted by nasreddin at 4:02 PM on February 5, 2008


To refer to a rather different segment of philosophy than what's been discussed above, maybe you are looking for "standpoint epistemology" in the way that people like Sandra Harding talk about it, or "situated knowledge" from Donna Haraway.
posted by mariokrat at 4:19 PM on February 5, 2008


nasreddin: The question of experiential knowledge has been debated pretty extensively by both analytic and continental philosophers--especially in the context of qualia, but in other contexts as well.

That's probably what mausburger was talking about. I think I was too rigid in dealing with the example he gave, which didn't sound like experiential knowledge to me, as it deal with the truth and understanding of a particular statement.
posted by koeselitz at 4:45 PM on February 5, 2008


Here's Wikipedia on procedural knowledge, a term used in cognitive psychology, as opposed to declarative knowledge ("The sky is blue." etc.), although I'd recommend reading a more polished account from some cog psych textbook.
posted by Anything at 1:29 PM on February 6, 2008


Thanks for your really great answer, koeselitz.

Knowledge is a tough one.

Agreed.

First, an experience can lead to an understanding of a statement. You don't understand what change someone is referring to when they say "having kids will change your life" until you undergo that change yourself.

I think this was the clearest re-statement of what I'm getting at.

I'd submit that most of the parents I know who feel as though they know now what it means to be a parent and how it necessarily changes their lives simply have a strong hunch, and strong hunches often turn out to be wrong.

And probably so. Is this not also knowledge?

I'm familiar with the debates surrounding the formulation of knowledge in contemporary epistemology, as some sub-set of the intersection between true propositions and personal belief. This issue is further complicated by the question of whether someone can really know something with empirical data, as Cool Papa Bell suggests when talks about the color 'red,' or the Mary's room thought experiment mentioned by strangememes.

Philosophy gets very complicated when trying to come up with rigorous, logical definitions that are consistent with intuitive or common sense notions. Except in some exotic logic systems, truth states tend to be binary-- true or false. However, people don't always behave that way. They can act as if something is true sometimes and then throw out that information at other times. For example, when deciding when a certain behavior is risky or not.

Often, this is where psychology comes in and tries explain knowledge in terms of cognitive structures. Where psychology can get stuck is accounting for larger-scale perturbations on human behavior. For instance, why Joseph Priestley couldn't see the oxygen in the phlogiston in front of him. This is history can come in, and so on.

Other disciplines like sociology, hermeneutics, education and knowledge management have their contributions. Furthermore, each has a slightly different working definition of the term 'knowledge.' Which is why I don't believe that philosophy, or any other single discipline, has cornered the market on studying it. I thought the suggestions to look at Gadamer, Harding, and Haraway were terrific. While these authors can also be considered philosophers, they construct questions and answer them from more broadly than Aristotle and his heirs.
posted by mausburger at 5:46 PM on February 6, 2008


Jayden: I think that the Aristotelian concept of "practical wisdom" is precisely what you're getting at. He discusses this in the Nichomachean Ethics.

In Book 6, Aristotle talks about the five intellectual virtues. One of these is phronesis, which is just what you're talking about. Interestingly, Aristotle considers it inferior, or at least lower in the hierarchy, to knowledge that can be obtained through logical reasoning (sophia). I'm not convinced that this is the case, but I wonder if phronesis is lower because it uses a weaker standard of proof?
posted by mausburger at 5:52 PM on February 6, 2008


tkolar: Hmm, I'm surprised "experiential knowledge" isn't yielding citations. That's what I've always heard it called.

I saw lots of uses of the term. Most of the references are how to us experience to teach better in education or counseling. I haven't seen anything along the lines of "Experiential knowledge is...," and it differs from non-experiential (book learning?) in the following ways. I've also seen references how people learn better or differently when taught experientially.
posted by mausburger at 5:56 PM on February 6, 2008


Thank you for your interesting reply. To start with, you probably knew you'd get my fur up with this:

mausburger: Other disciplines like sociology, hermeneutics, education and knowledge management have their contributions. Furthermore, each has a slightly different working definition of the term 'knowledge.' Which is why I don't believe that philosophy, or any other single discipline, has cornered the market on studying it. I thought the suggestions to look at Gadamer, Harding, and Haraway were terrific. While these authors can also be considered philosophers, they construct questions and answer them from more broadly than Aristotle and his heirs.

Agreed. So-called 'philosophy' as such is a pretty specialized discipline, and is narrow in focus. Knowledge can be studied by many disciplines. But if knowledge is one thing (and we call it by one name, so it is either one thing in at least one aspect, or we speak incorrectly) then it is best studied by whatever discipline studies knowledge as itself, rather than knowledge as it relates to sociology, hermeneutics, or education. In other words: disciplines are of little use here except as sources for citations and voices in a discussion. The real question is: what should we turn our attention to, and how? I agree that 'philosophy' as such has no claim to exclusivity, but that is because those who wear the badge of philosophy do not necessarily take part any more or any less than anyone else in the essential thing: the study of what knowing means. Whatever disciplines you separate thought into, unless we can justify disciplines by understanding what they are and how they come about, they are not really academic disciplines, at least not in the original sense. And there must be a study of how to understand disciplines and how to understand knowing.

I don't really understand what you mean by "Aristotle and his heirs," though. (I don't remember Aristotelianism being incredibly popular at the moment. Perhaps I'm wrong.) At the very least, while I think that Gadamer, Harding, and Haraway are incredibly insightful thinkers, they're hardly as "multidisciplinary" as Aristotle. But I wonder if you're reading Aristotle the way I do.

In any case: as far as the difference between phronesis and sophia, I don't think Aristotle is claiming it's inferior there. But if you're looking for his thoughts on the faculties of knowledge, I think you'd be better off looking in On The Soul; there, he indicates in the second book (I'm sorry, I don't have it in front of me) that all objects of intellection must be known first through sense perception. That's very similar to what you're saying, I think, at least in the sense that things must be experienced to be known.
posted by koeselitz at 2:40 PM on February 7, 2008


I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get your fur up.

koeselitz: But if knowledge is one thing (and we call it by one name, so it is either one thing in at least one aspect, or we speak incorrectly) then it is best studied by whatever discipline studies knowledge as itself, rather than knowledge as it relates to sociology, hermeneutics, or education. In other words: disciplines are of little use here except as sources for citations and voices in a discussion.

But this is precisely my point. Philosophy has the idea that it is possible to study knowledge as itself. People in other disciplines would disagree. Some would argue that knowledge is entirely socially constructed. (I think this is an extreme view, but I think there's a grain of truth here.)

A discipline is of use here because every discipline has a set of foundational principles or way of looking at the world. These starting points constrain, limit, or support certain lines of inquiry, but not others. I don't see disciplines only as arbitrary way of slicing up thought or universities. They're also human social organizations too.

I don't really understand what you mean by "Aristotle and his heirs,"

Sorry, for the terseness. What I mean by this is the sequence of 2000+ years of philosophy that uses Aristotle as a starting point.

think that Gadamer, Harding, and Haraway are incredibly insightful thinkers, they're hardly as "multidisciplinary" as Aristotle. But I wonder if you're reading Aristotle the way I do.

I agree that Aristotle was very "multidisciplinary," in the sense that he thought about many issues that cross what today's disciplinary boundaries. He attempted to sort out all kinds of things about the world, ranging from morality to physics. But he only represents one point of view, one starting point. Gadamer brings in a historical view. Harding and Haraway use a different starting point for thinking about knowledge. So perhaps "diverse" is a better term than "multidisciplinary," but it's not really possible for a single person to be diverse (otherwise this would be a very confused, schizophrenic person).

I'll keep looking at Aristotle. I won't be able to use it in the paper that's due today, but there's always the next one. Thanks for your input.
posted by mausburger at 10:43 AM on February 11, 2008


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