Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 10

Intuition and tacit knowledge, part 2. In the last Cognitive Revolution post, I introduced Oakeshott's two forms of knowledge, the technical and the practical. Technical knowledge is consciously formalized rationalistic knowledge, while practical knowledge is largely unconscious, inarticulable, and not easily amenable to "reason." Oakeshott's theory about practical knowledge, if true, creates problems for Rand, whose foundationalism requires that all knowledge claims be explicitly justified in terms of articulable, reason-based arguments. Now we shall examine the evidence that can be brought forth to defend Oakeshott's claim. The evidence can be divided into two parts: (1) Evidence from everyday life; (2) Evidence from cognitive science.

(1) Evidence from everyday life. Such evidence is abundant and overwhelming—assuming one has enough wit to notice it. Oakeshott himself gives the example of the master chef and the cookbook. Let us assume that a master chef has made recipes of all his best dishes and put them in a cookbook. Would it be possible to duplicate the results of the master chef simply by following the recipes in the cookbook? No, of course not. If that were true, anyone could become a master chef merely by following the recipes of a master chef. It is widely recognized that in cookery, along with other complex endeavors, expertise is necessary. What qualifies one as an expert? Beyond a simple competence/intelligence, what is required is long experience within the given domain of experience in which one is an expert.

Another compelling example of practical knowledge is grammar. Consider what the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto has to contribute on the subject:
It would be absurd to claim that the theory of grammar preceded the practice of speech. It certainly followed, and human beings have created the most subtle grammatical structures without any [conscious, technical] knowledge of it. Take the Greek language as an example. We cannot imagine that the Greeks one day got together and decided what their system of conjugation was to be. Usage alone made such a masterpiece of the Greek verb. In Attic Greek there is the augment, which is the sign of the past in historical tenses; and, for a very subtle nuance, beside the syllabic augment, there is the temporal augment, which consists in a lengthening of the initial vowel. The conception of aorist, and its functions in syntax, are inventions that would do credit to the most expert logician. The large number of verbal forms and the exactness of their functions in syntax constitute a marvelous whole. [Mind and Society, §158]
Grammatical knowledge is interesting precisely because it is developed in young children who could never have grasped it explicitly, through the means of articulated, formalized rules. The practical knowledge of grammar thus precedes the technical knowledge of this domain, which flies in the face of Rand's view of automatized knowledge, with its orientation toward the primacy of technical knowledge view.

(2) Evidence from Cognitive Science. but if the evidence from common experience is not sufficient to convince the incorrigible skeptic-rationalist, then we have evidence from cognitive science as well. Robin Hogarth has a very interesting article on intuition which draws heavily on cogsci research. Hogarth distinguishes two modes of judgment, the tacit (or intuitive) and the deliberative (analytical). These two modes are analogous, though not identical, to Oakeshott's practical and technical knowledge. (The main difference is that Hogarth's tacit knowledge is a wider conception that Oakeshott's practical knowledge—i.e., practical knowledge is a kind of tacit knowledge.)

Oakeshott claims that "practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired." This suggests that practical knowledge is learned without us realizing how we learn it, that it is learned unconsciously. Hogarth's tacit knowledge is learned (in part) in a similar manner (i.e., unconsciously). According to Hogarth, "information about stimuli are recorded without conscious awareness and stored for possible future use. This very basic process is at the heart of tacit learning and the accumulation of facts and frequencies that has now been so well documented in the literature. It requires neither effort nor intention and, yet, the information stored can be subsequently recalled when needed, even for tasks we would have never imagined."

Oakeshott also insists that practical and technical knowledge work hand in hand. Hogarth buttresses this view by noting that "it is important to emphasize that in many cases the deliberate response will be influenced by the tacit response and all that precedes it. In other words, people will always have some tacit response (however minimal) to any triggering event."

Oakeshott also emphasizes the importance "connoisseurship" and mastership through experience—in other words, what cognitive scientists call "expertise." Here's what Hogarth has to contribute about expertise:
There have been many studies of expertise. From our perspective, there are several key findings. First, expertise is limited to domains and is only acquired through exposure to and activity within specific domains. Thus, because someone is an expert in one domain (e.g., chess) does not mean that she will be an expert in another domain (e.g., medicine) unless she has also had considerable experience in the latter. Second, outstanding performance in any domain takes years of dedication. Moreover, high performers have typically followed demanding regimes of deliberate practice and benefited from good teachers. Third, there is – curiously – less relation between expertise and predictive ability in many areas of activity than one might imagine. However, this finding may be more indicative of the nature of the uncertain environments in which experts operate than due to a lack of “expertise” per se. Consider, for example, the random nature of movements of the stock market. Fourth, experts and novices process information in different ways. Experts acquire habits that allow them to process more information than novices. They learn, for example, how to counteract limitations in short-term memory and to “chunk” information more effectively. They also use different problem-solving strategies. Novices tend first to identify a specific goal and then work backward through the details to determine a solution – making much use of deliberate thinking. Experts, on the other hand, rely more on tacit processes. They tend first to take in the details of the problems they face, and then determine (by recognizing patterns and similarities) a general framework that allows them to explore possible solutions. Not surprisingly, experts solve problems faster than novices.
This pretty much matches Oakeshott's view, particularly the assertion that "experts acquire habits that allow them to process more information than novices." Such habits are precisely what Oakeshott is referring to when he talks about practical knowledge.

Hogarth has another interesting comment to make on tacit knowledge which could help explain its importance in human cognition. He notes that
Attention in consciousness is limited and therefore costly. In the framework, I assume a scarce resource principle. The key idea is that because the deliberate system consumes limited resources, it is used sparingly. It is allocated to tasks that are deemed important at given moments but can be switched to other tasks as the situation demands. It is rarely “shut down” completely and often has a monitoring function. In most cases, the tacit system is our “default” and the deliberate system is invoked when either the tacit system cannot solve the problem at hand or the organism is making some conscious decision (for example, planning what to do).

I would also note, in conclusion, what we have discovered in previous Cognitive Revolution posts: namely, that "unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought" and that "nearly all important thinking takes place outside of consciousness and is not available on introspection." Hogarth's scarce resource principle helps explain this fact about the dominance of the unconscious in thought. Yet there is another principle which can be added to this that is part of my own theory. It is well known (even Rand admits) that conscious attention is limited: only so much can be attained in consciousness at any one given moment. The practical effect of this is that consciousness is not very well equipped to handle complexity. Since it is very difficult to hold in memory all the factors in a complex situation, the attempt to understand complexity through deliberate conscious reasoning easily breaks down. Hence I conjecture that unconscious thinking is required for human beings to grasp complexity and nuance. Since the unconscious has access to everything in the brain, included all memories, whether received consciously or not, it can form intuitive inferences that are cognitively far more powerful than what the mere conscious can do.

Any philosophy which, like Rand, glorifies and accentuates conscious deliberate thinking at the expense of originative unconscious intuition, vastly underestimates the cognitive capabilities of man's mind.


Anonymous said...

Nyquist: Oakeshott's theory about practical knowledge, if true, creates problems for Rand, whose foundationalism requires that all knowledge claims be explicitly justified in terms of articulable, reason-based arguments.

Wrong. In Rand's own words knowledge is "a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation." Also, she invoked implicit knowledge quite often in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Anonymous said...


Having read AR's "The Art of Non-Fiction" (and just begun "The Art of Fiction") I can tell you that she puts plenty of importance on the subconscious. In fact, she even went so far as to say that consciously trying to string sentences together is virtually impossible; you have to "trust" your subconscious during the actual writing, and edit later.

Point being, she does seem to put conscious and subconscious thinking into their respective places.

gregnyquist said...

anon57: "In Rand's own words knowledge is 'a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation.' Also, she invoked implicit knowledge quite often in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology."

Rand makes these concessions to "practical" knowledge because its difficult to deny the reality of such knowledge, the evidence for it being so overwhelming. The problem is that these concessions are not consistent with her positions elsewhere. When she says, for example, that " reason is man's only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge," she is taking a position that is at odds with Oakeshott's practical knowledge. Her notion of an implicit concept is, at the very least, problematic (from her point of view), and quite possibly self-contradictory.

gregnyquist said...


I think you're missing the larger point here. Yes, Rand would probably have admitted that there is something like Oakeshott's practical knowledge, as is implied in her "Art of Fiction" seminar. However, she would've denied the main point Oakeshott (and I) draw from it: which is, namely, that there is some knowledge that is tacit and inarticulable and cannot, therefore, be defended by reason. To give an example: connoisseurs of classical piano would almost universally regard Richter's RCA performance of Beethoven's of the Appassionata sonata as superior, in terms of depth and expression, to that of Horowitz. But there is no way you could ever prove or justify or establish, in words or concepts, the superiority of the Richter performance. The connoisseur simply knows that the Richter performance is better, and there's an end to it.

The anti-foundationalist implications of practical, intuitive, tacit knowledge poses a huge problem for Rand, particularly when we enter the domains of morality and politics.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Her notion of an implicit concept is, at the very least, problematic (from her point of view), and quite possibly self-contradictory.

Yes. Take her assertion here, for example:

"The truth of falsehood of all man's conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions." (ITOE, italics in original.)

No clearer statement could one want of Rand's rationalistic method. For obviously "implicit" knowledge is unspoken (ie not explicit), so obviously it can't even have a definition - not even an ostensive one - as there is no word to be defined in the first place.

Just because she mentions an issue like "implicit knowledge" here and there in a vague, handwaving way doesn't mean she has a consistent intellectual position. Rand is a highly scattershot thinker who often doesn't know what she's talking about. For example, she constantly bangs on about the importance "induction", and how evil it is to criticise it, but then tucked way in an obscure corner of the ITOE confesses she cannot even begin to formulate an answer to "the big question of induction" ! It's like a chasm suddenly opens up.

Same with her "implicit knowledge". She mentions it - she has to, really, as she has the problem of children knowing things before they can articulate them explicitly, and this is a problem for her theory of concept formation which requires a word to be complete - but is entirely vague about it and does not seem to understand its range and importance. She dismisses it because it is outside man's "conscious control."

JayCross said...

Ayn Rand was pretty ignorant about cognitive science. Having just finished ARCHN I am convinced of that and will readily concede it.

However, that does not diminish the importance of conscious thinking or the need to refine it over a lifetime. It also doesn't mean that reason is an "empirically empty verbalism" If our lives are going to take anything close to the shape we want to give them we have to think and act to make it so. Just because some (or even a great deal) of that knowledge is tacit doesn't mean our conscious mind isn't in the driver's seat.

Daniel Barnes said...

> Having just finished ARCHN...

Hey wanna review it?

JayCross said...

I'd love to, however, I need to re-read and make notes first. My first read is always an uninterrupted, "just for fun" run through. Second time around I take notes and reflect more deeply.

When I do that, I'd be happy to.

Anonymous said...

"Just because some (or even a great deal) of that knowledge is tacit doesn't mean our conscious mind isn't in the driver's seat."

Certainly not for all of us all of the time it isn't, and I often wonder how much time it spends behind anyone's steering wheel - despite my best efforts it doesn't seem to be in charge of much of my own journey.

What exactly was Rand's position on mental illness? I get the impression that she was one of the "pull yourself together" types wrt depression.

Neil Parille said...


As I recall, if you read the Brandens' memoirs, Rand was rather dismissive of the idea that depression and other mental ilnesses might have a biological basis.

JayCross said...


There's a direct quote to that effect in ARCHN. Something like, Branden suggested that to her and she dismissed it, then he asks her how she can just ignore psychological research and she snaps "Because I know how to think!"

That, I agree, is completely dogmatic and ignorant. However, even if I myself were biologically predisposed toward depression, I really hope I wouldn't conclude "Oh well, I'm depressed and that's my lot in life. Might as well just deal with it." I'd still at least try to do what I could about it.