Clerestory

On knowing, of and about

November 03, 2021

In my recent writing on note-taking, I noted that “to know of something is not to know it.”

In writing on following things back to their sources, I noted that “We know of writers whose writings are no longer preserved.” I also mentioned that, when using Wikipedia, I’m reading about a subject.

The distinction between knowing of a subject, knowing about a subject, and knowing a subject is a distinction that has been on my mind this week. I’m also thinking about knowing how to do something.

Two related posts: Last year I wrote about the problem of infinite knowledge in Taoism and about how to learn what to learn.

Knowing of

To know that something exists, or once existed, is what I’m calling “knowing of.”

  • We know of Epicurus’ lost works, of which there were more than three hundred, but we can’t know what he actually wrote.
  • I know of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), though I have not read it.
  • I can know of a friend of a friend without knowing anything but that person’s name.

Knowing about

To know the territory surrounding something, to know facts about something, or to know the effects it has left, is what I’m calling “knowing about.” It depends on knowing of.

  • I can know about Epicurus by reading a later writer (like Diogenes Laertius or Lucretius), who knew Epicurus’ work directly.
  • I know about Tolstoy’s life from reading his diaries, though I never knew him personally.
  • I know about Kant’s Critiques, though I have not read them — mainly from reading secondary sources, and from conversations with people who know it directly.
  • And of course I can know facts about friends of friends or strangers without knowing them.

This kind of knowledge means I could start sentences with “Kant said…” from excerpts I’ve read.

Knowing

To know something is to possess (or be possessed by) a living version of it. This is obviously a much higher standard than knowing that it exists, as well as than knowing things about it.

  • To know Darwin’s theory, or a branch of mathematics, is to be able to apply it yourself. This is much more active and takes much more time than knowing that it exists, or knowing facts about its existence.
  • To know another person’s work deeply is also to have a living version of it. People who know Kant well enough can start sentences with “Kant would say…”
  • To know another person well is more-or-less to walk around with that person hanging out in your mind (not necessarily consciously).

It seems to involve having a model of someone or something, and it reminds me of the concept of generative models, a concept I know of and about but don’t myself know. I just know that it exists, and enough about it that it seems to be related. (If you know generative models, please tell me if I’m right or wrong!)

Perhaps to know another person is also to have a version of that person living in my mind. If I know her well, I know what she would do or say. I can (and perhaps must) generate rich predictions about what she would or wouldn’t like. In some sense these come unbidden; the people I know well live alongside my “self” (or model of myself) in my consciousness. I encounter something, and my model of that person springs to life in my mind, in the form of “So-and-so would love this.”

Knowing how

My intuition is that knowing how to do something is a subset of knowing. It’s enacted and embodied. Knowing how to cook or how to ride a bike is being able to do it yourself.

It also strikes me that knowing how depends on knowing of but may not depend on knowing about. You can know how to ride a bike without know much about bikes or riding.

Another way to carve up knowing

In an example of what I pointed out yesterday, the closeness of the Athenians to everything we think, I’m going back to Aristotle.

I read the Nicomachean Ethics a few years ago and remember that Aristotle divided knowledge into three categories. Last February (looking at the Zettel) I read this article about the question and wrote up this summary:

  • Episteme, meaning “to know,” is scientific knowledge, which is universal, invariable, context-independent, like maths.
  • Techne, meaning “craft” or “art,” relates unsurprisingly to craftsmanship and art, i.e., making/doing.
  • Phronesis is “practical wisdom,” with a primary emphasis on ethics.

Possibly episteme is “knowing about” and techne is “knowing how” in my above divisions. Phronesis seems to be about “knowing how to act” which is not one of the categories I considered.

Also covered in that blog post:

  • Sophia involves reasoning concerning universal ethics, whereas Phronesis includes a capability of rational thinking.
  • Techne, the knowledge of how to do, allows praxis, bit like right action, which leads to phronesis, which leads back to techne.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.