Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 9

Intuition and tacit knowledge, part 1. In the next series of Cognitive Revolution posts, I am going to discuss what I regard as Rand's most critical shortcoming: namely, her inadequate theory of intuition—a theory so inadequate, that it is almost an attack on intuition. Because this subject is so very complicated, I am going to start by introducing a theory of knowledge proposed by philosopher Micheal Oakeshott. Now it is important to note that Oakeshott is not a part of the Cognitive Revolution. But since his theory provides clarification of some of the key issues at stake, I will use it as a jumping off point for my discussion of this very important issue.

Oakeshott proposes that there are two types of knowledge involved in every science, art, or practical activity: (1) technical knowledge and (2) practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is "susceptible of precise formulation" in terms of "formulated rules," such as the "technique of cookery" contained in a cookbook. Practical knowledge is called practical "because it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules. This does not mean, however, that it is an esoteric sort of knowledge. It means only that the method by which it may be shared and becomes common knowledge is not the method of formulated doctrine. And if we consider it from this point of view, it would not, I think, be misleading to speak of it as traditional knowledge. In every activity this sort of knowledge is also involved; the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it."

Oakeshott continues:
These two sorts of knowledge [i.e., the technical and the practical], then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of knowledge involved in every concrete human activity. In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book: technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists... And what is true of cookery ... is no less true of politics: the knowledge involved in political activity is both technical and practical. Nor ... is it correct to say that whereas technique will tell a man what to do, it is practice which tells him how to do it... Even in the what ... there lies already this dualism of technique and practice: there is no knowledge which is not "know how" ...
Technical knowledge, we have seen, is susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims—comprehensively, in propositions.... And it may be observed that this character of being susceptible of precise formulation gives to technical knowledge at least the appearance of certainty: it appears to be possible to be certain about technique. On the other hand, it is characteristic of practical knowledge that it is not susceptible of formulation of this kind. Its normal expression is in a customary or traditional way of doing things, or simply, in practice. And this gives it the appearence of imprecision and consequently of uncertainty, of being a matter of opinion, of probability rather than truth. It is, indeed, a knowledge that is expressed in taste or connoisseurship....
Technical knowledge can be learned from a book: it can be learned in a correspondence course. Moreover, much of it can be learned by heart, repeated by rote, and applied mechnically: the logic of the syllogism is a technique of this kind. Technical knowledge, in short, can be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master—not because the master can teach it (he cannot), but because it can be acquired only by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practising it. In the arts and in natural science what normally happens is that the pupil, in being taught and in learning the technique from his master, discovers himself to have acquired also another sort of knowledge than merely technical knowledge, without it ever having been precisely imparted and often without being able to say precisely what it is. Thus a pianist acquires artistry as well as technique, a chess-player style and insight into the game as well as a knowledge of the moves, and a scientist acquires (among other things) the sort of judgement which tells him when his technique is leading him astray and the connoisseurship which enables him to distinguish the profitable from the unprofitable directions to explore.
Oakeshott's theory is important for my own critique of Objectivism, because much of what I say against Rand assumes the existence of a tacit, intuitive dimension that is very similar to Oakeshott's practical knowledge. Keeping this in mind, consider how Oakeshott uses his distinction of technical and practical knowledge to criticize what he calls "rationalism":
Now as I understand it, Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. The sovereignty of 'reason,' for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique
The heart of the matter is the pre-occupation of the Rationalist with certainty. Technique and certainty are, for him, inseparably joined because certain knowledge is, for him, knowledge which does not require to look beyond itself for its certainty; knowledge, that is, which not only ends with certainty but begins with certainty and is certain throughout. And this is precisely what technical knowledge appears to be. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 12-16]
Now when Oakeshott talks about Rationalism, he doesn't mean only philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza. He also would include under the term any philosopher who emphasizes conscious, formalized "reason" at the expense of tacit, intuitive, "practical" knowledge. Rand would be a rationalist in Oakeshott's sense of the word, although she is not of the extreme type criticized in his essay. Rand would not necessarily have denied the existence of practical knowledge. She might have, instead, insisted that practical knowledge, in order to have any "validity" or usefulness, must be based on technical knowledge. Or, in other words, from an Objectivist point of view, practical knowledge, if it exists at all, is merely technical knowledge that has been "automatized." Even with this amendment, the Randian view is not compatible with Oakeshott's view, because Oakeshott insists that "practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned," and this pretty much rules out the notion that practical knowledge can simply be automatized technical knowledge. Also note Oakeshott's equation of technical knowledge with the "appearance" of certainty. This, perhaps, explains Rand's prejudice against tacit, intuitive, or practical knowledge and her desire to, in effect, make all knowledge reducible, in the final analysis, to technical knowledge. Rand needed certainty because of her foundationalism, which is so critical to the eschatological components of her system. For Rand, the (secular) salvation of Western Civilization depends on establishing the foundation of reason and man's "conceptual faculty." If technical knowledge is not supreme (or "primary"), this foundationalist salvation is impossible and unnecessary.

Now the question arises: which view, Rand's or Oakeshott's, come closest to the truth? This question will be the focus of my next post.


JayCross said...

This might seem like a very ignorant comment, and it probably is, but I am not seeing an enormous gulf between practical and technical knowledge. After all, practical knowledge has to be certain. If it's practical, it works. Its success at achieving a given end is a fact of reality. I'm not sure Rand would've had much to complain about here at all.

Mike Huben said...

Jay, there is an enormous gulf.

Very little knowledge in any one human is technical: the vast majority is practical. Our practical knowledge is self-assembled in our brains, rather than transferred from some other medium. Technical knowledge is metaphor that we can use to guide our fuzzy-logic learning. This is a widespread view in the education literature.

I'll give you an example: how good are you at word definitions? There are lots of words where you'll find that you lack technical knowledge but have practical knowledge, gained through context. Doubtless there are many words that you mispronounce because you've never heard them, only have read them.

Another aspect of the difference is the fact that often students are technically proficient, but practically incompetent. This is especially frequent in math (which I teach), where a student can solve quite sophisticated technical problems, but ask them to apply that knowledge to a real-world situation in a word problem and the students choke.

And finally, another aspect is that technical knowledge can essentially stand alone, whereas practical knowledge is embedded in that vast morass of "common sense", metaknowledge of how things interact, what's appropriate when, etc.

JayCross said...


Thanks for the clarification. What I should have said was, an enormous gulf between practical/technical knowledge in Rand's mind. I agree with your assessment of each kind, but don't really see why Rand would've been up in arms about it.

Daniel Barnes said...

Interestingly, it's this very "common sense" which is the major, currently insurmountable stumbling block in developing A.I. too.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "After all, practical knowledge has to be certain. If it's practical, it works."

It's little more complicated than that. In the first place, it's always possible that a person's practical knowledge works because they are lucky. Moreover, whether something works is not a criterion that can be used to judge moral or aesthetic practical knowledge. Here's where the duality between technical and practical knowledge yields huge problems for Rand. As I noted in my post, Rand is an extreme foundationalist. She wants to justify everything she believes, including her moral beliefs, with "reason." But if morality includes, not merely the technical knowledge embalmed in moral principles, but a practical knowledge version which only makes in appearance in moral conduct (or in the intuitive judgment of conduct), then Rand's desire for a rational morality built on "reason" can never be fulfilled. Since practical knowledge is tacit and inarticulable, deliberate conscious reason can never be used to justify it. Practical knowledge is, ipso facto, not compatible with any form of foundationalism. Practical knowledge morality cannot be justified or validated or rationalized or even understood by reason. At best, practical knowledge morality can be "appreciated" by other people who have attained a tacit mastery of it.

JayCross said...


Is practical knowledge really inarticulable? Let's stay with the cooking example. Hamburger Helper is a quick, easy favorite of mine. However, I routinely ignore some of the directions on the box. For example, it often says to add 2 cups of milk, but I know from experience to only add 1 or else the end result wont have the thick consistency I like. But that's far from inarticulable; I just explained it. It also seems to comport with Rand/Peikoff's definition of logic. I have integrated my experience of cooking with my knowledge of cooking, without contradiction.

Maybe that's a bad example, but it sounds like exactly the type of practical, gained-from-experience knowledge that Oakeshott refers to.

gregnyquist said...


Your example with the hamburger helper doesn't involve practical knowledge, precisely because it can be articulated and stated in the form of a recipe. Practical knowledge would be akin to what my mother does when she makes cornbread. She has some kind of special way of mixing the cornbread which enables it to rise in the oven. When I follow the same recipe, the result is disastrous: the cornbread remains flat. My mother blames my failure on the fact that I have over-mixed the cornbread: I need to mix and "fluff" it. But when I try that, I simply the cornbread still remains flat, only this time it's unmixed as well. I haven't been able to hit on the secret of doing it, because that secret cannot be explicated in words.

Explicit conceptual knowledge is limited in the depth and clarity of what it can express. Some aspects of reality are simply too deep, too complicated, too subtle to be adequately expressed in words. Fortunately, the cognitive unconscious enables us, at least on a practical, functional level, to grasp this knowledge that is too deep and subtle for words.