The Practice of Knowing and Knowing in Practices

by Bengt Molander (Author)
©2016 Textbook 315 Pages


This book is a philosophical analysis of knowledge in practices, focused on knowing how, tacit knowledge and expert knowledge. Knowing in action is the key concept. It covers understanding, well-functioning routines as well as successful learning processes. It is argued that knowledge-in-action is more basic than propositional or theoretical knowledge. Key notions are knowing as a kind of attentiveness or a way of being in the world, knowing as continued learning, and knowledge as what leads people in the best way. The book is a contribution to the contemporary philosophical discussions about knowing how, tacit knowledge and expert knowledge. At the same time, it is written as an interdisciplinary and case-based introduction to the epistemology of knowing and learning.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Knowledge and Learning: Some Examples
  • Introduction
  • The Cello Master Class
  • The Honour of Work and the Practical Intellect
  • The School of Architecture, Quist and Petra
  • Being, Doing and Experiencing—Embodiment
  • Human Roles—the Order of Things
  • Chapter 2: Tacit Knowledge and Silenced Knowledge. The Body, Culture, Action—and Language
  • Introduction
  • Tacit Knowledge—an Ongoing Debate
  • The “Tacit” Is Everywhere—and Nowhere
  • And Yet There Is Much that Remains Unspoken—and Perhaps Unsayable
  • “The Expressions of the Tacit” 1: the Body
  • An Excursus: Knowing That versus Knowing How
  • “The Expressions of the Tacit” 2: Culture
  • “The Expressions of the Tacit” 3: Action
  • Why All This Talk about Knowledge?—or: You Can Do More than You Know …
  • … And Then There’s Language
  • Chapter 3: Knowledge: A Search Without End
  • Introduction
  • Living Knowledge—Knowledge-In-Use
  • The Western Tradition of Knowledge
  • Living in the World
  • Enlightenment and the Critical Aspects of Knowledge
  • Knowledge of the Good and Doing Good
  • Knowledge Is Never on Its Own
  • Chapter 4: Dialogue—Conversation and Action
  • Introduction
  • The “Socratic” Dialogue
  • The Foundation of Knowledge: The Art of Bringing Knowledge into the World
  • The Limits of Scepticism
  • The “I” and the “We”
  • Text, Interpretation, Context—and the “In Between”
  • A Purely “Theoretical” Concept of Reason?
  • Knowledge Formation and the Destruction of Knowledge
  • Chapter 5: Human Action—Always on the Way
  • Introduction
  • Acting—Knowing How and Knowing What One Is Doing
  • The Reasons for Action: Questions and Answers
  • The Holistic Nature of Action
  • The Openness of Action
  • The Dependence of Action on Others
  • Conceptions of the Human Being
  • Knowing What One Is Not Doing and What One Has the Right Not to Know
  • Chapter 6: The Reflective Practitioner
  • Introduction
  • Technical and Practical Rationality
  • Knowledge and Reflection
  • Knowledge and Reflection as Conversation
  • Theories-in-Use
  • Teaching-and-Learning in Action
  • Constructing Worlds—and Finding Your Way in the World
  • Chapter 7: The Paths of Knowledge—Orientation and Control
  • Introduction
  • Knowledge and Interest
  • Technical Knowledge: Power and Representation
  • Orientation: Direction and Overview
  • Criticism: Method and Orientation
  • The Contexts of Knowledge
  • Modernity—Orientation and Disorientation
  • Chapter 8: To Be Continued—in Action: the Power and Openness of the Example
  • Introduction
  • Kuhn’s Professional Scientist and Schön’s Skilful Practitioner
  • Rules and Concepts Are Rooted in Action—and Examples
  • Examples: the Basis for Comparisons, for Finding Limits—and for Maintaining Openness
  • “Generalisation in Action” and Our Abstract World
  • Chapter 9: Two Sides of the Same Coin—Professional Knowledge and the Culture of Knowledge
  • Introduction
  • The Time and Rhythm of Knowledge
  • Research into Professional Knowledge
  • The Double Grasp: Routine and Expertise
  • Developing Certainty—“So That You Know What You Are Doing”
  • Knowledge Cultures and the Culture of Knowledge
  • Chapter 10: Participating in Knowledge—With Good Reason
  • Introduction
  • Knowledge in Action: Acting with Good Reason
  • Shared Knowledge and Undivided Responsibility
  • Knowledge in Action—Following Rules in a Skilful Way
  • Knowledge in Action: the Supreme Dialectic
  • Art as a Striving for the Best—Once Again
  • What Does an Epistemology Capture in Practice?
  • Epilogue: Education and Research for Living Knowledge
  • Literature
  • Index of Names

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This is a book about knowledge and learning. As the title indicates, I emphasise the active side: knowing in practices. In a sense, knowing in practices is learning as an ongoing project. This book is written by a philosopher, but its aim is primarily to say something both interesting and well grounded to people, in all kinds of professions and practices, who want to reflect on their own epistemological position, and on the role of skill and “practical” knowledge in society.

I start with a number of examples, which are described in some detail; these will be used as points of reference throughout the book. Most philosophical discussions in the analytic tradition, which is where I come from and partly stay, very quickly go into detailed discussions about issues such as the exact relationship between “knowing how” and “knowing that”, or between “tacit” and “explicit” knowledge. Such discussions tend to become technical, referring to tricky and elaborate cases. I prefer to stay close to the examples and, step by step, to construct a general picture of the kinds of knowledge we meet. It should be possible to use this picture as a framework for analysing other cases, without asserting that it is a blueprint for all kinds of situations.

It is not altogether easy to say what a “theory of knowledge” is. I would like to think that one aspect of it is captured in the words said by the teacher in the architect school, one of the examples in Chapter 1, to his student: “You must begin with a discipline …” Some basic key notions give the most basic structure: attentiveness, what leads us in the best way, what is good for human beings. You should ask the right questions. Or better: You must not ask the wrong ones. Most importantly, my conceptual framework and the way it is used in examples should lead readers to attend to features of their own experiences and cases that take them further in their learning processes.

The book is also written for philosophers. Most discussions in (standard) epistemology focus on knowledge in the form of beliefs in propositions and theories, what you can (justifiably) say about the world. I wanted to write a book about “the other side”, knowledge that is expressed by actions and ← 9 | 10 → practices, what you can (justifiably) do in the world. However, when I had written the book I found out, after a while and after some critical questions, that I had actually written a book about knowledge, or perhaps better: about skilful and knowledgeable human beings. Knowledge, I would now say, exists primarily only in the form of skilful and knowledgeable human beings.

A reader with little or no background in philosophy may find some of the chapters in the second half of the book a bit difficult. The first five chapters set the stage. In Chapter 10, I try to put the pieces together into a whole. It is possible to read the chapters in between more selectively, perhaps after Chapter 10. I have chosen to put many of the more detailed or technical comments in the endnotes, which also include references to the literature.

The form of the book, with examples and portrayals, has not been chosen only for pedagogical reasons. It mirrors an “epistemological turn” in my own philosophical research, and in my life. This also partly explains why I have chosen the specific examples that make up the main thread throughout the book. A short account of this “turn” may make it easier for the reader to get into the book and follow my arguments.

In the 1980s, I met researchers on working life who were exploring the long-term consequences of computerization at workplaces (further details of this are described in chapters 2 and 8). Those researchers perceived the people at the workplaces they investigated as, as it were, experts on their own knowledge or competence, in the sense that they were seen as the main characters in the reflection and learning processes. The research group was interdisciplinary; one might even describe it as extradisciplinary, with members including a cabinetmaker and a photographer. The notion of “tacit knowledge” was introduced in this research. The researchers, however, were not concerned about “defining” knowledge, or tacit knowledge. They trusted the persons they met and their knowledge, without expecting it to be infallible. Learning processes were more important than knowledge as a “thing” or a “state of the human being”. All this was a shock for a person with a standard (Swedish) philosophical education. I felt I had to become slightly non-standard, which also implied taking philosophy out into so-called real life. I have tried to continue along that line.

I have learnt from others and taken over many ideas from others, but I believe that the construction and the unity of the account are my own. ← 10 | 11 →

I hope that the reader will use, criticise and, at best, improve this book.

This book has been on its way for a long time. It has been published in two Swedish editions. In connection with the translation, I revised it once more. Now I have revised it again and updated the references. Many people have helped me, in many ways, to a better understanding, and a better text. Here, I can acknowledge only a few of them.

Philosophers at the University of Bergen (Norway)—above all Kjell S. Johannessen, Tore Nordenstam and Gunnar Skirbekk—opened my eyes to both the radical pragmatism of Wittgenstein and various forms of continental pragmatism. Hilary Putnam’s seminar on William James at Harvard University back in 1989 made me read and appreciate James’ brand of pragmatism. I have tried to construct a pragmatism of my own from these and other sources. I have always learnt much from Bo Göranzon and Ingela Josefson, beginning with their working life research in the eighties. Jerker Lundequist and Susanne Rosberg commented in detail on parts of my manuscript.

I am grateful to the poets Claes Andersson, Bengt Emil Johnson and Göran Sonnevi for permission to publish translations of their poems. I am also grateful to Eva Martinson for her permission to publish the translation of a poem by Harry Martinson and to Suzanne Ekelöf for her permission to publish translations of two poems by Gunnar Ekelöf. Special thanks to Brita Green for her translations of the poems by Ekelöf, one of them together with John Charlesworth. The other poems mentioned in this paragraph as well were translated by Frank G. Perry, alone or together with Gabriella Berggren. The Swedish version of the text, including all quotations from Swedish sources other than those mentioned above, was translated by Frank G. Perry.

The process of translating this book was exciting, a real learning process in practice. Frank and I exchanged many e-mail letters. The result was that I had to rethink and reformulate many parts of my text. I learnt a great deal, not least about knowing in action. Thank you Frank! We lost touch towards the end of the process. Finally, Margaret Forbes did a superb job of turning my final revisions into idiomatic English—thank you for that!

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“You can learn to make a fair job of sharpening knives in a couple of years, but getting a pair of scissors into perfect working order is the real test of the master.”1

Chapter 1: Knowledge and Learning: Some Examples


Knowledge comes in many forms: the insight which an experienced mother practises in her contact with her child, the skill which an artisan exhibits in the exercise of her craft and the knowledge expressed in scientific theories, to give just a few examples. Here I use “knowledge” as a comprehensive umbrella term to cover what might more commonly be referred to as insight, skill, understanding and so on.

Several years ago Ulf Linde, the Swedish art critic and connoisseur, referred in a radio interview to “knowledge as a form of attentiveness.”2 He was talking mainly about painting and he mentioned that Picasso was someone who was always paying attention. Linde went on to say that one cannot be trained to produce masterpieces but that attentiveness can be learnt as a routine.

Whenever my thoughts have turned to the subject of living knowledge, Ulf Linde’s words have come back to haunt me—they have developed into a sort of key. It is the idea of knowledge as a form of attentiveness that forms my main theme here. This phrase will take on life, grow and change together with the text of this book.

Words cannot fully capture the meaning of living knowledge. Ulf Linde’s words may, however, point our attention in a productive direction and, in so doing, our thinking about knowledge. ← 13 | 14 →

The remainder of this introductory chapter is devoted to several examples of knowledge and learning. They help to provide a picture of an area of study—knowledge and learning in action. I shall be referring back to them throughout this book.

The Cello Master Class

This example is taken from Schön (1987), who refers in turn to a book about the Beaux Arts Trio.3 Here the master, and the teacher, is Pablo Casals. In what follows Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio, describes his early lessons with Casals:

We spent at least three hours a lesson. The first hour was performance; the next hour entailed discussion of musical techniques; and the third hour he reminisced about his own career. During the first hour, he sat about a yard away. He would play a phrase and have me repeat it. And if the bowing and the fingering weren’t exactly the same as his, and the emphasis on the top of the phrase was not the same, he would stop me and say, “No, no. Do it this way.” And this went on for quite a few lessons. I was studying the Bach D Minor Suite and he demanded that I become an absolute copy. At one point I did very gingerly suggest that I would only turn out to be a poor copy of Pablo Casals, and he said to me, “Don’t worry about that. Because I’m seventy years old, and I will be gone soon, and people won’t remember my playing but they will hear yours.” It turned out of course that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-seven. But that was his way of teaching. … He was extremely meticulous about my following all the details of his performance. And after several weeks of working on that one suite of Bach’s, finally, the two of us could sit down and perform and play all the same fingerings and bowings and all the phrasings alike. And I really had become a copy of the Master. It was as if that room had stereophonic sound—two cellos producing at once.4

But as soon as this degree of mimicry had been achieved, says Schön, Casals did something surprising:

And at that point, when I had been able to accomplish this, he said to me, “Fine. Now just sit. Put your cello down and listen to the D Minor Suite.” And he played through the piece and changed every bowing and every fingering and every phrasing and all the emphasis within the phrase. I sat there, absolutely with my mouth ← 14 | 15 → open, listening to a performance which was heavenly, absolutely beautiful. And when he finished he turned to me with a broad grin on his face, and he said, “Now you’ve learned how to improvise in Bach. From now on you study Bach this way.”5

In a conversation about music and Casals and the necessity of copying, Olle Sjöström, a statistician and amateur musician, said to me: “The cardinal sin of the amateur is to listen only to his own playing.” Perhaps it is not imitation that is most important but learning to listen—attentively.

In this account there is a great deal one has to try and fill in for oneself. Greenhouse does not, for example, say anything about the extent to which Casal’s reminiscences during the lessons were connected to the piece that was played during the first hour nor to what extent the discussions of technique were either.6 The details are not, however, particularly important here.7

Greenhouse distinguishes three key elements:

  •  Practice or training, in this case playing the cello—playing and listening.
  •  Discussions of technique, reflection about the way something was done, what other possibilities existed and which ones could be created—in order to acquire a language that is an integral part of the activity.
  •  The initiation of the individual into a tradition, through a master; anecdotes and reminiscences have an important role to play in the creation of a professional identity.

Knowledge is to be found at the conjunction of these three elements—and there may well be others; in other words: when they come together to form a unity.

It is also worth paying attention to the relationship between necessity and freedom, between discipline and creativity—a dialectic of learning. Once Greenhouse has achieved, been forced to achieve in fact, an exact imitation, Casals reveals that no particular aspect of what he has learnt to imitate (bowing, fingering, phrasing) is the key if he is to continue to study Bach, ← 15 | 16 → so much as Casals. Casals’ own improvisation is part of the teaching-and-learning process—Greenhouse is forced to go on learning in freedom. The somewhat paradoxical nature of the lesson would seem not to have been lost on Casals, to judge by his broad grin.

Casals teaches Greenhouse to imitate him to the point where “imitation” means that Greenhouse has to create a wholly new performance of his own, different from that of Casals. Schön notes this and goes on to mention the story of the rabbi whose pupils reproach him for not having followed the example of his illustrious father. “I am exactly like my father,” he replied: “He did not imitate, and I do not imitate.”8

In all “practical art” there exists a dialectic that resembles that of learning: a dialectic between “trusting blindly” in one’s own knowledge and being forced to “go beyond” it and steer one’s own course, with all the insecurity that may entail.9

The Honour of Work and the Practical Intellect

How does an individual (an artisan) set about solving a task which will be assessed and made use of by others? How would you do it yourself? How aware are you of what you are doing? If you have been able to acquire a fully developed and living form of knowledge about how to relate to your own body, about the care of tools, the right clothing for different purposes, the assessment of materials, you can devote all your energies to the task in hand. This being so, you know that everything takes its own time and there is no need to hurry. At best you have been given the opportunity to practice the art of your craft and just as a painting, a film or a piece of music is an artistic expression achieved with the help of knowledge—a boat, a house, a machine are the expression of the vision and ambition of an artisan.10

So writes the cabinetmaker Thomas Tempte in his book Arbetets ära (The Honour of Work). His emphasis is on the transmission of generations of experience—for good and ill—within a craft or profession. A key concept is that of professional ethics. This quotation is taken from the chapter ← 16 | 17 → “Professional Ethics,” under the sub-heading “An Attempt to Clarify the Meaning of Professional Honour.”

In the same chapter Tempte also reflects on “practical” and “theoretical” knowledge.

A common misconception on the part of non-artisans is that the work of the artisan is manual labour. Another is that the intellectual labour it involves is less complicated.

These everyday mental somersaults are actually based on ignorance. The need for abstract thinking is really very high. You have to develop in advance an idea of what an object will look like, how it will be put together, how it will work.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
Knowledge in practice Epistemology Pragmatism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 315 pp.

Biographical notes

Bengt Molander (Author)

Bengt Molander, Professor of Philosophy at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, studied philosophy in Uppsala and Oxford. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Konstanz, the University of Pittsburgh, Harvard University and the University of Cambridge.


Title: The Practice of Knowing and Knowing in Practices