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types of knowledge

There is so much disagreement over what are, exactly, the different types of knowledge that an agreed upon “master list” simply does not exist. This is because knowledge is purely philosophical; debates span centuries, arguments supersede fact and everyone has a different opinion about what is, or is not, knowledge.

What follows is a master list (although, of course, it won’t be agreed upon) of the different types of knowledge and theories of knowledge that are out there.

Practical Knowledge Modelling: Ontology Development 101

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Capture machine-interpretable knowledge through ontology and semantic techniques | By Tish Chungoora

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1. A Priori

A priori and a posteriori are two of the original terms in epistemology (the study of knowledge). A priori literally means “from before” or “from earlier.” This is because a priori knowledge depends upon what a person can derive from the world without needing to experience it. This is better known as reasoning. Of course, a degree of experience is necessary upon which a priori knowledge can take shape.

Let’s look at an example. If you were in a closed room with no windows and someone asked you what the weather was like, you would not be able to answer them with any degree of truth. If you did, then you certainly would not be in possession of a priori knowledge. It would simply be impossible to use reasoning to produce a knowledgable answer.

On the other hand, if there were a chalkboard in the room and someone wrote the equation 4 + 6 = ? on the board, then you could find the answer without physically finding four objects and adding six more objects to them and then counting them. You would know the answer is 10 without needing a real world experience to understand it. In fact, mathematical equations are one of the most popular examples of a priori knowledge.

2. A Posteriori

Naturally, then, a posteriori literally means “from what comes later” or “from what comes after.” This is a reference to experience and using a different kind of reasoning (inductive) to gain knowledge. This kind of knowledge is gained by first having an experience (and the important idea in philosophy is that it is acquired through the five senses) and then using logic and reflection to derive understanding from it. In philosophy, this term is sometimes used interchangeably with empirical knowledge, which is knowledge based on observation.

It is believed that a priori knowledge is more reliable than a posteriori knowledge. This might seem counter-intuitive, since in the former case someone can just sit inside of a room and base their knowledge on factual evidence while in the latter case someone is having real experiences in the world. But the problem lies in this very fact: everyone’s experiences are subjective and open to interpretation. This is a very complex subject and you might find it illuminating to read this post on knowledge issues and how to identify and use them. A mathematical equation, on the other hand, is law.

3. Explicit Knowledge

Now we are entering the realm of explicit and tacit knowledge. As you have noticed by now, types of knowledge tend to come in pairs and are often antitheses of each other. Explicit knowledge is similar to a priori knowledge in that it is more formal or perhaps more reliable. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is recorded and communicated through mediums. It is our libraries and databases. The specifics of what is contained is less important than how it is contained. Anything from the sciences to the arts can have elements that can be expressed in explicit knowledge. Get a taste of explicit knowledge for yourself with this top-rated course on learning how to learn and knowing how to tap into your inner genius.

The defining feature of explicit knowledge is that it can be easily and quickly transmitted from one individual to another, or to another ten-thousand or ten-billion. It also tends to be organized systematically. For example, a history textbook on the founding of America would take a chronological approach as this would allow knowledge to build upon itself through a progressive system; in this case, time.

4. Tacit Knowledge

I should note that tacit knowledge is a relatively new theory introduced only as recently as the 1950s. Whereas explicit knowledge is very easy to communicate and transfer from one individual to another, tacit knowledge is precisely the opposite. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to communicate tacit knowledge through any medium.

For example, the textbook on the founding of America can teach facts (or things we believe to be facts), but someone who is an expert musician can not truly communicate their knowledge; in other words, they can not tell someone how to play the instrument and the person will immediately possess that knowledge. That knowledge must be acquired to a degree that goes far, far beyond theory. In this sense, tacit knowledge would most closely resemble a posteriori knowledge, as it can only be achieved through experience.

The biggest difficult of tacit knowledge is knowing when it is useful and figuring out how to make it usable. Tacit knowledge can only be communicated through consistent and extensive relationships or contact (such as taking lessons from a professional musician). But even in this cases there will not be a true transfer of knowledge. Usually two forms of knowledge are born, as each person must fill in certain blanks (such as skill, short-cuts, rhythms, etc.).

5. Propositional Knowledge (also Descriptive or Declarative Knowledge)

Our last pair of knowledge theories are propositional and non-propositional knowledge, both of which share similarities with some of the other theories already discussed. Propositional knowledge has the oddest definition yet, as it is commonly held that it is knowledge that can literally be expressed in propositions; that is, in declarative sentences (to use its other name) or indicative propositions.

Propositional knowledge is not so different from a priori and explicit knowledge. The key attribute is knowing that something is true. Again, mathematical equations could be an example of propositional knowledge, because it is knowledge of something, as opposed to knowledge of how to do something.

The best example is one that contrasts propositional knowledge with our next form of knowledge, non-propositional or procedural knowledge. Let’s use a textbook/manual/instructional pamphlet that has information on how to program a computer as our example. Propositional knowledge is simply knowing something or having knowledge of something. So if you read and/or memorized the textbook or manual, then you would know the steps on how to program a computer. You could even repeat these steps to someone else in the form of declarative sentences or indicative propositions. However, you may have memorized every word yet have no idea how to actually program a computer. That is where non-propositional or procedural knowledge comes in.

6. Non-Propositional Knowledge (also Procedural Knowledge)

Non-propositional knowledge (which is better known as procedural knowledge, but I decided to use “non-propositional” because it is a more obvious antithesis to “propositional”) is knowledge that can be used; it can be applied to something, such as a problem. Procedural knowledge differs from propositional knowledge in that it is acquired “by doing”; propositional knowledge is acquired by more conservative forms of learning.

One of the defining characteristics of procedural knowledge is that it can be claimed in a court of law. In other words, companies that develop their own procedures or methods can protect them as intellectual property. They can then, of course, be sold, protected, leased, etc.

Procedural knowledge has many advantages. Obviously, hands-on experience is extremely valuable; literally so, as it can be used to obtain employment. We are seeing this today as experience (procedural) is eclipsing education (propositional). Sure, education is great, but experience is what defines what a person is capable of accomplishing. So someone who “knows” how to write code is not nearly as valuable as someone who “writes” or “has written” code. However, some people believe that this is a double-edged sword, as the degree of experience required to become proficient limits us to a relatively narrow field of variety.

But nobody can deny the intrinsic and real value of experience. This is often more accurate than propositional knowledge because it is more akin to the scientific method; hypotheses are tested, observation is used, and progress results.

Knowledge Management

Now that you know the basics of knowledge theory, use it to develop some procedural knowledge with a course on knowledge management and strategies to identify, create, distribute and manage insights and experiences.

Page Last Updated: June 2021

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