Knowledge And Differences

Knowledge is usually seen as know-that as opposed to the know-how practical capabilities or skills are described as.

But there is a way of describing knowledge that renders both aforementioned species on a par or on the same level. The guiding metaphor or image is that of orienting oneself in a landscape, that ability or knowledge one has when one is accustomed to a spot or region and is, on an intuitive level, able to find one’s way without much fuss.

So let’s have knowledge as one’s ability of orientation in information contexts of a certain (but principally unlimited) complexity And let’s adopt Gregory Bateson’s famous phrase and describe information as the smallest difference that makes a difference. Or to be a bit more precise: the smallest significant difference that makes a difference.

What we have, then, is a concept of information that is not a datum, something given (a fact usually, but a factum is something made, not found, too), but something in between. It is something that appears in the foreground relative to other things in the background. It changes in significance, in value, in duration, all depending on the person or persons involved. That means: Information isn’t something durable, something fixed, but something fluid. That is so because to one person something may be a significant difference that for another person is not, wasn’t ever, or is no more. You get the picture.

A context of information is a context in which information changes, differences appear and vanish relative to the person or persons involved. Knowledge as the ability to orient oneself in those contexts is the ability to register, value, and appreciate the differences in question. So we come to the concepts of knowing-better-than and knowing-worse-than. A specialist knows more about a theme in the sense that he knows — beyond the data – the caveats one has to acknowledge in framing valid assertions. The layman lacks this ability.

Learning becomes the ability to orient oneself in an information-context better than one was able to some time ago. Forgetting becomes the loss of the ability to orient oneself in such an information context one was able to earlier.

These images focus not on data but on differences. On what people do with data, what they mean to them, what amazes them, etc. Differences vary from person to person. The ability to place data and information in their proper relation is akin to the ability to deal with a tool in a craft, the ability to ride bicycle, to play piano, etc. You have to learn it, you can forget it, others may be better than you, and others are not. The ability to place something in the appropriate region of a context, to differentiate, to ponder the significance, to decide what is new and what a mere façon de parler — that is what know-that is about and wherein the mastery of a researcher lies. His ability to recognize when a difference is a significant difference distinguishes him from the layman and what makes his opinion valuable to others. So even on the web the expert doesn’t need to become dumb. [1] At least not by the amount of and access to data and information, but due to his varying and changing ability of wandering around — and wondering about. But we all grow old, don’t we?

[1] This is an allusion to the title of J.P. Rangaswami’s post “Does the web make experts dumb?” as my lines here are a reactions to his deliberations there with which I disagree in the main part. The differences lie primarily in that he seems to see information and knowledge as kind of abstract objects that scientists and librarians tried to lock away from the public for much too long a time in order to gain monetary benefit from this artificial scarcity. In contrast to this caricature I try to remind the reader that knowledge, information, and data are rather distinct topics and results of very different activities. J.P. Rangaswami wrote two follow-ups ( part 2 and part 3 ) to his piece, that were of minor relevance for the post at hand. (Footnote added 2011.06.24)

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8 Responses to Knowledge And Differences

  1. I do like. Let me set my path through "your knowledge" with this little abstract:
    – Information isn’t something durable, something fixed, but something fluid. (maybe "alive")
    – Learning becomes the ability to orient oneself in an information-context (maybe children need "durable" information to be able to orient themselves in an information-context as adolescent and adult)
    – To recognize when a difference is a significant difference (maybe with Internet the "significant difference" will be something fluid too depending of the "context", the connections, comments etc…)
    I feel as the time goes by like a…child discovering one thing new each day, thanks to you, dear followers and "virtual friends"!


  2. J.F. Ayel says:

    Your post is great… Maybe an inducted perspective could be joined to the conversation: suppose knowledge is a graph, vertices (nodes) are quantum of information, and edges are links… what makes Internet exciting is that links, that is hyperlinks are explicit. Does it means that Internet is THE expert? … more to talk…About graph


  3. simsa0 says:

    Thank you, Isabelle and J.F, for your nice replies

    – What I had in mind was to stress the aspect of person-dependency that often gets lost in the talk about information. Of course, one may define more or less what one wants, but in my understanding a datum is something static and independent from a person, whereas an information does have this person-dependency (that is most often very valuable): An information is something for someone, but a datum is not something for someone (quite contrary to the the etymology of the word).
    – Thank you very much for the hint to (‘to’, ‘on’ ?) children. I haven’t thought about their learning much. But I suppose that ‘data-giving’ by naming doesn’t work (problem of rule-following, cf. I guess data or ‘fixed points’ in a child experience are given by the tone with which the parents respond to a question or action of the child. But this is a wide field.
    – Is the web alive? Lets forget my distinction between information and data for a sec and lets talk indiscriminately about information. Then the ‘alive’-character would come into play if and when we equate information with consciousness. (I elaborated about this a little bit here ) A strong thesis. But perhaps it becomes clearer that we do understand ‘information’ having this personal touch or dependency.

    – My knowledge in logic, set theory, Boolean Algebra etc. is limited (and a long time gone since I worked on / with these topics). But what you seem to have in mind with graph theory is a semantic net approach that utilizes data / articles / entries and links that connect in such a manner that links are seen as data too (on a meta-level). If so, I’d like to recommend @brightbyte’s research paper "Wikiword" that deals with the implicit structural knowledge embedded in explicit links. (The site contains links to his diploma thesis (in German), an english version excerpt may be found here: )
    – Again, my emphasis was on the ‘human factor’ in knowledge, i.e. being an expert is something happening in people, not webs (as fars as I know the endeavor to create expert-systems failed (like AI)). That we are enticed to think the other way seems to me to be due to what may be called ‘aboutness’: When we talk about something we make it an issue by ‘adressing’ it (sometimes by naming it) and thereby converting it into a thing, using definite article, nouns whatever. (Differences between language families ignored for the moment) So even the fluid ‘things’ get materialized. Being an expert, knowing one’s way around through the info-context can be talked about, but we must be aware of this feature in our languages. Again: these nuances can be treated as objects, can be materialized as meta-data. But that doesn’t mean they are such. So the web may be an expert — depending on some such presuppositions.

    To you both: Have a nice day-K


  4. J.F. Ayel says:

    Thx for your quick and deep reply… I’ll go where you want me to go, and keep you informed… Yet have a look to Graph theory, it some piece of Maths so simple to first tackle with, and such a good thinking model for so many problems: look for instance of the "model" of words: old model words are "lists" like entries in dictionary, new model words are "graphs" like in visual thesaurus… just "look up a word" at… and now you will "think" at words differently, words as network or graph, not words as list…


  5. simsa0 says:

    I’m sorry for the broken link in my reply to Isabelle above. Closing the parenthesis with a ‘)’ killed it. So here is the correct one on ‘Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language’ in the english language wikipedia.


  6. simsa0 says:

    I played a bit with the visual thesaurus you have linked to, and I must confess that I don’t see its point yet. Perhaps some remarks may help:
    – I’d suggest 3d- over 2d-visualization to better represent the connectivity of the lemmata.
    – I like old-fashioned dictionaries. Language dictionaries, e.g., give the meaning / translation of a lemma grouped in contexts of its use. Online language-dictionaries like simply give an unsorted list )and are in this respect a step backwards in lexicography).
    – CD-Rom-version of dictionaries like Brockhaus or Encyclopedia Britannica use graph-visualization to show the connection a given lemma has to others. I personally never found this of much use — especially not over a list of such connections given in the sidebar.
    – It would be nice to have a visualization of the Wikipedia-content via graphs, but over and above the amusement I don’t see the advantage of such a presentation or its potential. Are we not all bored watching Power-Point-presentations? (Well, not me personally, as I don’t encounter them in my work …)
    – We should distinguish carefully what we are going to illustrate. Do we visualize a given area of knowledge with the help of graphs (or semantic-net approach or …)? Or are we going to visualize our way of getting to know something? Personally I find the latter much more interesting that the former (especially when it comes to the comparison of different ways of getting to know something), but I suppose the former is far easier to achieve than the latter. Like always: we’ll see.

    Best wishes


  7. brightbyte says:

    I like the image of orientation in a landscape of information. Hoever, I would not call this ability (or skill) "knowledge" – I would call it "expertiese". It is a know how, based on a lot of know what – knowledge, for instance, about the limitations of the presupositions used for orientation.


  8. simsa0 says:

    Thank you for comment. I guess your main concern is with the propositional elements involved in Know-how. I think that most Know-how — the ability to dance a waltz, to play piano, to heal a fever — entail elements or ‘content’ that can be brought into verbal form. (Think, e.g., how cooking recipes originate: they are instructions to do such and such to achieve such and such written down *after* they were tried out.) But that doesn’t mean the ‘content’ is in any sense ‘prior’ to the mastery of the activity. It doesn’t exclude prior data, ‘difference-awareness’ (so to speak), etc., either. Know-how as exemplified in crafts and recipes, Know-that as exemplified, e.g., in repeatability of content in an exam — these are two kinds of what we call ‘knowledge’.
    I just made 3 steps:
    – I detached the notion of information from its common meaning ‘content’, ‘proposition’, ‘statement’, etc., i.e. from its connection to a linguistic entity. Instead I took information to cover something other, namely ‘differences’.
    – I put in focus that differences, regardless of whether they are (or entail) linguistic / propositional components or not, are what we deal with in theory (Know-that) and in practice (Know-how).
    – Then I looked for a different image — image, not explication or definition — that wouldn’t involve (too much) our common conceptions of Know-that and Know-how, and I went back to what is called ‘Orientierungswissen’ / ‘being able to orientate oneself’ in some parts of philosophy. To orientate oneself *in a landscape* seemed to me a good image to deal with the, well, ‘expertise’ if you will in being able to deal with differences. The image of being able to orientate oneself in a landscape became the primary image for covering both, Know-that and Know-how. This is possible because one can describe, I guess, even a craft as the ability to orientate oneself in a specific ‘context of information’ (including complexity, loss and gain of capability, expert-and-layman-situation, etc.).
    A different question is whether one should subdivide species of knowledge: Know-how, Know-that, Know-what (if that wasn’t a typo), Know-why … I’m not sure about this, but I don’t want to exclude it either.Thank you for allowing me to make myself clearer.
    Best wishes
    – K


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