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Knowledge And Truth

That knowledge must be true is a longstanding presupposition of Western thought. Yet there are many instances of knowledge that cannot be called true. These include knowledge expressed in technological objects like a bridge or satellite, or in works of art and the imagination. A technological artifact or a work of art is not true (or false) in the way a proposition is. In the face of this discontinuity between knowledge and truth, one may question whether truth properly has the value for knowledge philosophers tend to suppose, or one may make subtle distinctions, dividing knowledge so as to preserve the necessary truth of its best and highest instances. Unsurprisingly, philosophers prefer to distinguish and preserve. Where ancient philosophy distinguished a scientific epistēmē from the technē of art and craft, twentieth-century analysts discovered a "semantic" or "conceptual" distinction between knowing how and knowing that.

This distinction is not a neutral analysis. It may be no more than a linguistic rationalization for the assumption that knowledge must divide along lines of intrinsic truth and mere instruments. Western thought consistently ignores, misdescribes, and underappreciates the knowledge involved in art and technology. The philosophers seldom have a good word for artisanal technē- knowledge, or the ingenuity and cunning (mētis) of the architect or hunter. Although these other knowledges are indispensable to human existence, that very thing has seemed to make them base, materialistic, unsuited to higher minds. To the philosophers, how-to (or technē) knowledge is routine, mechanical, and thoughtless, while knowledge of truth is a disinterested grasp of nature and reality.

Philosophers even preferred to invent new concepts of truth rather than reconsider whether the best and most important knowledge has to be true. Kant's theory suggested (though not to Kant) that truth may not be a matter of "correspondence" between thought and reality but merely a coherence of experience. The pragmatists took experimental knowledge as exemplary and promptly introduced a new theory of truth, defining it in terms of "working." It would be equally logical, however, to simply drop the condition of truth on the best sort of knowledge.

Certainly there is some difference between knowing that the earth rotates around the sun (a true proposition) and knowing how to play the flute (a skill or art). But is the difference one in kinds of knowledge? What is obviously different about them is how the knowledge is expressed. In one case by producing a proposition, in the other by a musical performance. But that is a difference in the artifacts that express knowledge, and does not prove a difference in what makes these examples of knowledge at all. In both cases the knowledge concerns artifacts, constructions of ours, whether propositions or musical performances. And in both cases these artifacts must rate as notable accomplishments. Not just any true proposition expresses knowledge; it has to be informative, important, an insight or discovery. And not just any playing constitutes knowledge (mastery) of the flute.

Heliocentric astronomy and musical artistry are therefore not so different as knowledge. Whether we speak of knowing that (such and such is true) or knowing how, we are qualifying capacities for performance at a certain high level with artifacts of some kind. As examples of knowledge, a surgical operation or a bridge may serve as well as any scientific truth. Their quality as knowledge depends not on their truth but on other, equally rare qualities of artifactual construction. Knowledge has much less to do with theory and truth than philosophers assume. What makes knowledge desirable and worth cultivating is the enhancement it brings to the effectiveness with which we operate in an artifactual environment. Knowing how and knowing that are not different kinds of knowledge. They are different kinds of use for different artifacts, all expressing the only kind of knowledge there is: a human capacity for superlative artifactual performance.


Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004. Develops account of knowledge as superlative artifactual performance.

——. Truth in Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Discusses ideas of truth in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other Continental philosophers.

Elias, Norbert. Norbert Elias on Civilization, Power, and Knowledge: Selected Writings. Edited and with an introduction by Stephen Mennell and John Goudsblom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Everson, Stephen, ed. Companions to Ancient Thought. Vol. 1, Epistemology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Feenberg, Andrew, and Alastair Hannay, eds. Technology and the Politics of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Harding, Sandra, and Jean F. O'Barr, eds. Sex and Scientific Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Laudan, Rachel, ed. The Nature of Technological Knowledge: Are Models of Scientific Change Significant? Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel, 1984.

Machlup, Fritz. Knowledge: Its Creation, Distribution, and Economic Significance. 3 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980–1984.

Marglin, Frédérique Apffel, and Steven A. Marglin, eds. Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

——. Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, and Resistance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

McCarthy, E. Doyle. Knowledge As Culture: The New Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories / Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. A contribution from post-colonial cultural studies.

Moser, Paul K., ed. Oxford Handbook of Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Renfrew, Colin, and E. B. W. Zubrow, eds. The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tanesini, Alessandra. An Introduction to Feminist Epistemologies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.

Wuketits, Franz M. Evolutionary Epistemology and Its Implications for Humankind. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Barry Allen

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxKnowledge - Modernity, The Linguistic Turn, Continental Philosophy, Knowledge And Truth, Bibliography