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Not sure where to start with this really.  ‘Knowing’ is one of those concepts I have come up against a few times.  Okay straight away my use of the phrase ‘come up against’ in the last sentence tells me that I am in some sort of adversarial battle with this concept.  It feels like that every time I encounter it, I kind of ‘get on top of it’, feel as if I am the master.  But then, it drifts away and next time we meet I have to start all over again.

The first time I encountered ‘knowing’ was in B823 Managing Knowledge.  More specifically it was covered in one of the chapters in the course reader – a chapter by Cook and Brown (1999).  I have actually cited Cook and Brown in blogs before – in spite of the fact that I found the reading one of the most difficult things to get through.  In thinking about doing this blog I thought I would revisit it with the hypothesis that now I have read more about epistemology and knowledge, I may have a better foundation from which to understand it.  I started with lots of determination, and a moment of excitement because it starts with a quote from Vickers (a systems thinker whose work I studied in TU812) but alas I only got half way through – it is so dense.

What I do glean from the article is that knowing is used to create a distinction from knowledge – something that Pragmatist Philosophers like Dewey emphasised.

Knowledge – is something that is ‘possessed’.  You ‘have knowledge of…’ something.  Knowledge can be possessed at an individual level or at a group level.  Knowledge can be explicit or tacit.  The Cartesian view favours explicit, individual knowledge but Cook and Brown particularly stress that the four ‘types’ of knowledge are of equal importance and each does epistemic work that the other cannot.  Knowledge is static in that you have it whether you are in the moment of using it or not (e.g. I have knowledge of how to ride a bike).  Cook and Brown refer to knowledge about this knowledge as the epistemology of possession.

Knowing – however, is the epistemological dimension of action itself.  Knowledge is used as a ‘tool’ in action but knowing is an aspect of action itself.  Knowing involves action so it involves interaction with the physical and social world.  Knowing is dynamic.  Cook and Brown refer to knowledge about knowing as the epistemology of practice.

Knowledge and knowing interact with each other (but do not become each other).  As knowledge is used as a tool for knowing, it can create constraints and possibilities for knowing.  Knowing – the act of doing – can give rise to new knowledge.  I think this is what the idea of the ‘generative dance’ is about.

So, now to explain what prompted this latest inquiry into the concept of knowing.  I am reading a book about action research (Coghlan and Brannick, 2010) – or probably fair to say I am studying it.  It’s probably going to inspire a number of blogs as I go through it as part of my research into Research practice.

Coghlan and Brannick talk about action research as aiming to produce ‘practical knowing’.  Yes, I’ve being trying to get to grips with the concept of knowing and now I find out there are different kinds of knowing.  Coghlan and Brannick do not define knowing or knowledge per se but given the way they use them, I don’t think they are using the concepts with exactly the same meaning as Cook and Brown did.

Anyway, Coghlan and Brannick explain that action research distinguishes four kinds of knowing, which reflect different ways in which we deal with and act within the world.

  • Experiential knowing: the knowledge arising as we encounter the realities around us
  • Presentational knowing: the knowledge expressed in our giving form to this experiential knowing, through language, images, music, painting and the like
  • Propositional knowing: the knowledge distilling our experiential and presentational knowing into theories, statements and propositions
  • Practical knowing: the knowledge that brings the other three forms of knowing to full fruition by doing appropriate things, skilfully and competently.

Coghlan and Brannick (2010, 36)

Action research aims to produce practical knowing.  Coghlan and Brannick contrast this with more traditional scientific knowing – the focus of most research. (As an aside, they don’t mention scientific knowing in the list above and don’t really define it).

Practical Scientific
concern for the practical concern for theoretical aspirations and universal statements
satisfied with what it needs for the moment tries to be exhaustive and seeks to know and state accurately everything it knows
spontaneous methodical
uses language with a range of meanings develops technical jargon
remains in world of things related to us wants to relate things to each other

Whilst, I can understand these distinctions on paper, I do think the Cartesian and scientific models dominate so much of the way we talk about knowledge/knowing that it is easy to slide back into it.  For example, Coghlan and Brannick talk about one of the aims of action research as contributing to a body of knowledge (p39).  If (practical) knowing is about what happens in action (Cook and Brown) or is what is needed in the moment (Coghlan and Brannick), then how can there be a body of it to contribute to/build etc.  And, as I have illustrated from just two authors (albeit writing 11 years apart) there does not seem to be a consistent distinction made between knowledge and knowing…even Wikipedia directs a search for ‘knowing’ to the entry on Knowledge.

(Furthermore, Wikipedia’s article on Epistemology starts of by stating that it will focus on knowledge that.. (as that is what happens mostly in epistemology) so it touches on know-how (Cook and Brown’s tacit knowledge) but then goes off into detailed explanations of explicit knowledge and ‘acquiring’ knowledge.)

So, ‘knowing’ is still hard for me to grasp and conquer.  But I get the sense that I am not alone – the irony is there is not a good enough explicit body of knowledge on knowing and the epistemology of practice for people like me to get a ‘quick fix’ and move on.  And, if I could get it the culture and language I have available to me in day to day life constrain, rather than enhance, my possibilities to use those distinctions.

Does that matter?  Most of the time – probably not!  Just when I come across it in a book and start tying myself in knots again.

So to draw in part on my first ever blog as well as the discussions above.  Here is my provisional working understanding….

I know about – possess explicit knowledge of – systems thinking and practice – through reading and studying.

I know how – possess tacit knowledge of – systems thinking and practice – through practising it for real.  The more I do it, the more it becomes my ‘default’ mode of thinking and acting.

I have both this explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge regardless of whether I use it or not.  But knowing happens in the moment of action only.  Knowing is an aspect of doing.  Knowing does not get ‘built’ or ‘added to’ – it is there in the moment and gone.

Just as I was about to ‘wind up’ this post, I found the abstract for an article by Orlikowski (2002).  The abstract has a nice line:

knowing is not a static embedded capability or stable disposition of actors, but rather an ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted as actors engage the world in practice.

I kind of like that. Maybe I’ll add the article to my outstanding reading list.



Coghlan, D. and Brannick, T. (2010) “Doing action research in your own organisation”, 3rd edition, Sage Publications, London.

Cook S and Brown J (1999) “Bridging Epistemologies: the Generative Dance between Organisational Knowledge and Organisational Knowing” in Little, Quintas and Ray (2002) “Managing Knowledge: an essential reader” The Open University/Sage Publications, Milton Keynes/London. reprinted from Organizational Science, Jul/Aug99, Vol. 10 Issue 4, p381-400

Orlikowski, W.J. (2002). Knowing in practice: enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.

One thought on “Knowing

  1. Addendum 19 August 2011:
    I think I have a breakthrough in understanding Cook and Brown’s work! It has been there in the words all along but it never clicked into place. To them, ‘knowing’ is a word they have coined to draw attention to the epistemic (or knowledge-related) dimension of action. It is obvious to me now that taking an action – doing something of any kind – is not an occurrence in a knowledge-less vacuum. Action draws from knowledge. The knowledge possessed at a certain time makes certain actions possible and constrains the likelihood of other actions. Action creates new knowledge (explicit/tacit/individual/group). As I said in my blog knowing is the epistemological dimension of action itself – the epistemic work done as we take action. Oh, that’s a relief…kind of makes me think of the ‘experiential learning cycle’ type models in a new way…

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