Why do we bother with argument? We bother with argument because it matters to us that we believe responsibly, and it bothers us when we find that we have made a mistake or have been duped. The fact that others disagree with the things we believe occasions in us the concern that, in forming our beliefs, we have overlooked or misjudged some important piece of evidence or some compelling kind of reason. In cases where the beliefs in question are important, we often call upon those who reject what we believe to provide their own reasons, and we subsequently attempt to weigh their reasons against our own. Even though some arguments over Big Questions seem to go on and on, we engage in the activity of arguing for the sake of caring for our beliefs.
—  Robert B. Talisse/Scott F. Aikin: Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement

Epistemology (from Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning “knowledge, understanding”, and λόγος, logos, meaning “study of”) is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge and is also referred to as "theory of knowledge". It questions what knowledge is and how it can be acquired, and the extent to which knowledge pertinent to any given subject or entity can be acquired. Much of the debate in this field has focused on the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to connected notions such as truth, belief, and justification. The term “epistemology” was introduced by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808–1864).

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, and an interesting distinction in epistemology is “Knowing How" vs "Knowing That”.

The sense of “knowing” used in common language really only covers one of these - “Knowing That”.  So things like knowing where you left your keys, knowing the phylogenetic tree, knowing how to define “epistemology”… all these are examples of “Knowing That”.

In a way, “Knowing How” is much more common, but much less talked about.  For example, I know how to type.  How to chew.  How to ride a bike.  I don’t learn how to do these things (generally) by memorizing facts… imagine trying to ride a bicycle with a perfect academic knowledge of the machine, but no experience riding.

"Knowledge How" and "Knowledge That" are gained in different ways:

  • "Knowledge That" can be gained from a book.  Reading, or maybe attending lectures might be ways to gain this sort of information.  Preserving and perfecting it just amounts to preserving and perfecting your recall of the facts.
  • "Knowledge How" is different.  It can be taught only by example, and is learned by doing.

The bulk of my learning to type was not memorizing key positions, but rather teaching my fingers how to act.  Having learned, I couldn’t transcribe my typing skill into a book… it exists as predispositions in my finger muscles, and likely connections within my brain that would be fairly meaningless outside the context of typing.

I think this is a good distinction, but it has a fuzzy border.  In fact, I think it’s one of the great achievements of human intellect that “Knowledge That” can be used to reach further and further into the realm of “Knowledge How”.

Stop, Drop and Roll!"  Every time somebody actually acts on this fire-safety mantra, they are leveraging their purely academic "Knowledge That" into a "Knowing How" situation.  It would be - er - impractical to practice extinguishing fires on your own body and thus “learning how”.  Our only other option is learning by the book what to do in a dangerous situation… and it works!

Personally, I know there is no replacement for experience, but I enjoy the challenge of preparing as thoroughly as I can for “Doing” by “Knowing”.  And as a parent, I enjoy teaching my kids by the same methods.  I feel that all really effective teaching is an attempt to extend “Knowledge That” into the realm of “Knowledge How”.

For example, I can’t make my 3-year old daughter strong and capable by explaining things to her.  But I can say to her (when she wants to carry a heavy milk-carton) “Hug the weight close to your body - the closer it is to you, the easier it will be to control”.  I can’t teach my son to swim by talking to him, but I can say “If you slip and end up under water, don’t panic, and don’t try to yell or to breath - just hold your breath and try to get your balance, and don’t worry, I am watching out for you." Etc.

These insights matter, and they are one of the ways humans are so special in the animal kingdom.  We can learn to operate in dangerous or unfamiliar environments because our objective “Knowledge That" can be carried in and - with discipline - used as "Knowledge How”.

We should and do currently accept the firmest scientific conclusions as true, but when one of these is dislodged by further research we do not say that it had been true but became false. We say that to our surprise it was not true after all. Science is seen as pursuing and discovering truth rather than as decreeing it.
—  Quine, W. V.. From Stimulus to Science, p.67. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print
Radical faith meets radical doubt: a Christian epistemology for skeptics


This four-part series of blog posts, by John G. Stackhouse Jr., author of Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology, addresses questions of Christian epistemology, faith, and doubt.

  1. The butterfly and the matrix
  2. Certainty and authority
  3. Approaching peak skepticism
  4. Radical faith answers radical doubt

Image: St. John’s Ashfield Stained Glass, Good Shepherd Portrait by Alfred Handel. Photo Toby Hudson. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.