Gaining Knowledge without Learning

01 January 2021

 If I asked you to name some ways of knowing, you might mention a few familiar ones. You can come to know something by observation using your senses: you can come to know that it’s dark by looking out of your window. You can come to know something by testimony: you can come to know that there’s a sale on at Barney’s right now by hearing your friend tell you just that. You can also come to know something by working it out in your head: you can figure out that 68 + 57 is 125 just by adding 68 and 57. 


In each of these cases, you’re coming to know something that was already a matter of fact: it was dark before you knew it, the sale ran before you knew it, and 68 + 57 has been 125 since at least the dawn of time. In other words, each of these cases of coming to know something involved learning: gaining knowledge of a fact that was a fact even before you knew about it. 


But there’s another way of coming to know something, one I bet that you wouldn’t think of at first. This way of knowing doesn’t involve observing things, gaining testimony, or calculating anything. And it doesn’t involve learning: coming to know in this way doesn’t involve coming to know a pre-existing fact. For these two reasons, it’s unlike other ways of knowing things about the world. But it’s not exactly mystical or inaccessible. On the contrary, it’s positively commonplace. This way of knowing arises when you do something intentionally. 


There’s a rich history of philosophical debate about the precise nature of intentional action, but the basics are fairly straightforward. When you do something intentionally, you have in mind something to be done, and you control what happens so as to bring that thing about. For example, intentionally snapping my fingers involves controlling the motion of my middle finger and my thumb so as to produce a quick ‘snap!’ sound when my finger hits my palm. If I control my motions in just that way because I have snapping my fingers in mind as the thing to be done, and I really do end up making that ‘snap!’ sound as a result, then I count as snapping my fingers intentionally. (Note that all-important condition: if the sound doesn’t result, then the whole action doesn’t count as snapping my fingers. It’s called “snapping” for a reason!)


When you do act intentionally, you tend to know what you’re doing—you’re the one doing it, after all! It can’t be a surprise to me that I snap my fingers, given that I’m snapping my fingers intentionally. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to you if you wandered into a closed-door discussion of your promotion—if you were doing that intentionally. The fact that you tend to know what you’re doing, when you’re doing that intentionally, was first discussed extensively by G.E.M. Anscombe (in her 1957 book Intention), and then a little later by Stuart Hampshire (in his 1959 book Thought and Action). This was a philosophically groundbreaking point, but it is also an intuitively plausible one. It might well help explain why you can’t tickle yourself intentionally (you know when it’s coming!), and why you’re less likely to get carsick on a winding mountain road when you’re doing the driving (no twist or turn will be a surprise to your poor stomach). 


One remarkable thing about this kind of knowledge, which Anscombe labeled “practical knowledge,” is the way in which you get it. You don’t have to perceive yourself acting, or gather testimony from others, or even do any calculations, in order to know what you’re doing while you’re doing something intentionally. You don’t have to relate to the world in any of these other ways you relate to the world when you gain knowledge. 


This is remarkable partly because what you know, when you know what you’re doing, is a fact about the physical world. For example, when I know that I am snapping my fingers, I know that something’s going on that involves a quick, sharp noise, and I know that the hunks of matter that constitute my fingers are making that noise. But I could wear perfect noise-canceling headphones, numb my fingers, and close my eyes while intentionally snapping my fingers, and still know that my fingers are moving in such a way that produces that quick, sharp ‘snap!’ The possibility of cutting off information from my senses, and still having the same knowledge, illustrates the fact that this kind of knowledge doesn’t rely on observation by the senses at all. 


More obviously, my knowledge of what I’m doing intentionally doesn’t rely on anyone else’s testimony, or any kind of calculation I could do in my head. It’s not even clear what type of calculation would be relevant to my knowing that I’m snapping my fingers. And it’s only very rarely that anyone else tells you anything about what you’re doing intentionally. 


Putting all this together, then, we have a form of knowledge that doesn’t rely on perceptual observation, testimony, or calculation. That’s enough to make it special already. But there’s something else that’s remarkable about practical knowledge, too: this kind of knowledge doesn’t come about after the fact it is knowledge of. Instead, since you know you’re snapping your fingers while doing that intentionally, this knowledge is born as the very fact is made. You come to know you’re snapping your fingers by starting to snap your fingers, and you know that as soon as it’s happening. That means that this way of coming to know doesn’t involve learning, in the sense of gaining knowledge about a pre-existing fact. That’s a second special feature of practical knowledge, on top of its not being based on observation, testimony, or calculation.


These two striking features of practical knowledge can be explained in the same way: when you’re acting intentionally, you’re the one in control here, the one making something happen in the first place. When you’re in control over whether something happens, you don’t need reassurance from your senses, or from other people, in order to know that it happens when you make it happen. You just have the power to make it be so. And the fact of its happening is something you create: you bring it about, you make it happen, and so you are the one to make its happening a fact. It’s the control involved in intentional action that matters to these two special features of practical knowledge. 


Photo by Kreative Kwame on Unsplash

Comments (11)

sminsuk's picture


Friday, January 1, 2021 -- 6:29 PM

Hmm. I don't think this is as

Hmm. I don't think this is as mysterious as the "rich history" seems to be making it out to be. It's called "proprioception" (literally "self perception"), and it is, in fact, a perfectly ordinary sense, though not one of the "five senses" that people normally think about. There are receptors, called "proprioceptors", within our muscles, which, like the receptors of any of our other senses (pressure and temperature sensors in the skin, rods and cones, taste buds, etc.) send signals into the nervous system and ultimately to the brain. This is how we "know what we're doing". It's also what makes it possible, for example, for a person -- even a completely blind person -- to pick up food and put it directly in their mouth without missing!

I'm not sure of the history of this science and how much of it was known in 1957 when that first book was written. but I suspect there was a good chance it was known by then!

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, January 2, 2021 -- 6:36 AM

Charles Scott Sherrington

Charles Scott Sherrington coined the term. Sherrington, C.S. (1906). The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. NewHaven, CT: Yale University Press. - is the first "modern" in depth treatment of "proprioception".

Proprioception can be both conscious and unconscious which might make it moot to Antonia's point, if it is understood by this writer.

DRM's picture


Saturday, January 2, 2021 -- 12:02 AM

Where does losing one's

Where does losing one's virginity fit into this? It is clearly not an act based on pre-existing knowledge, nor can it be an intentional act, as the end product is unknown at the start of the action. Before the world wide web opened up access to all aspects of human existence, watching others perform sex acts was not generally available for most people, so the act of losing one's virginity was not based upon watching the the behaviour of others, as for example, snapping one's fingers could be. The biological drive to copulate is an inherent part of the human condition, but first-time copulation cannot be based upon either pre-existing knowledge or conscious intentionality of a specific outcome. Furthermore, by its very nature it involves the reactions of others. It is not an action I can perform alone.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, January 2, 2021 -- 7:09 AM

Virginity is lost at the same

Virginity is lost at the same place it was gained - an internal state of ignorance. Some children are raped before they can attain adulthood and never experience virginity loss. Did Bill Clinton have relations with Monica? Certainly he lost his political virginity and the world lost a tipping point that brought us Bush v Gore and arguably the new millennial mess we find ourselves in... if we ever find ourselves.

Have I lost the point? Probably. I'm not sure virginity is helpful here but I would define it first, as rape is the more common historical starting place. Antonia starts her blog posts carefully with a reference to deeper conversations. As bloggers, we don't need to do that.

The idea that watching others perform sexual acts informs is interesting as well. Are we more liberated in a world that puts images to a childs phone and from there to their brain. Is it more liberated to shelter children from pornography until they masterbate or spontaneously orgasm? The idea that the world wide web opened up human sexual imagery is also interesting and wrong perhaps.

Virginity can be lost alone or in groups of people or even at the hands of ones own parents and family.

In general virginity is distracting to the idea of autodidaction through agency which is the OP?? I think there is a lot to unpack there if you really want to get into that. Do you? Let's have at it.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, January 2, 2021 -- 7:43 AM

The basics of intentional

The basics of intentional action are anything but "straight forward".

I would very much like to know where I come from before I snap my fingers and say I did anything much less know from it.

The feeling of agency does not allow knowledge if truth is the standard.

Does Math exist before consciousness?- hell no - it does not.

Suppose we do have agency and there is pre-existing truth. There is a whole nother (if you will..."not other" - if you won't another whole other) that needs disambiguation from intent. Benjamin Libet is a sticky wicket. That has been dealt with before and with good riddance but it needs a mention.

Hmm... the fundamental concept "of" as ontology and epistemological fact is misleading just as agency or fundamental mathematical truth.

There is going to be little traction coming at this without building from the brain forward. It gets messy quickly. That is the work. I know this because I learned it from you. There isn't any nother way.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, January 2, 2021 -- 8:07 AM

A very good read and guest

A very good read and guest would be Damon Centola. His book 'Change' looks to me to be timely and helpful on this and other topics of the new year and Christmas' past.

The idea of contagion and change has been lurking in my reading and thoughts these past couple months. The pandemic melody haunts my reverie. Hopefully I can change the subject at some point... not sure if that is possible or wise.

DHaz21's picture


Thursday, February 18, 2021 -- 11:24 AM

An honest question: Does this

An honest question: Does this treatise presume that the "intentional" action that it addresses is undertaken by some conscious choice by the human rendering the act? I ask simply because I have found that my brain skips running the issue by "me" entirely and just does acts on its own, and has done so for my conscious existence. Completely intuitive if you will, and skipping any step of awareness by me in the process. This may read as weird, but when I saw this site I figured it was as good a place as any to pose the question.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, March 8, 2021 -- 12:49 AM



In your skipping do you find yourself ever tickling yourself?

If you did would you laugh?

That you would not is what this treatise presumes. From this place comes knowledge.

I am old. When I look upon my reflection what do I feel? It is a good question. The answer doesn't have to be deep. If not asked however it is sad.

I would encourage you to own a little agency even if it is only to peel the onion. There may not be a core, but they can taste great these onions.

I too don't think much of free will. I don't expect a laugh when I make jokes either.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 26, 2022 -- 5:48 PM

My brother and I were both

My brother and I were both given a gift. I don't know how this happened. But we have always had a knack for figuring things out. Problem solving. I credit our paternally transmitted genes. Our father's father was a wizard, it seemed. He could make something useful out of junk...the stuff others threw away. It often requires time and thought---commodities few have enough of.. Over our respective lifetimes, we have saved many dollars on projects by thinking about desired outcomes first. More often than not, we did not need to trash-pick to get what was needed. Or, if skills we did not have were required, we acquired them, one way or another. To claim that knowledge was gained without learning is not quite right: if one does not know how to do something, yet 'figures it out', learning of some sort has to take place. Semantics fail us here. But the intent of this post is clear. At our respective ages, we do not know many people who share our gift. His oldest son (my nephew) seems to have the beginnings of it. He is not yet fifty. There is still time.

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Jose Solis's picture

Jose Solis

Sunday, December 3, 2023 -- 6:09 AM

I'm not sure it's possible

I'm not sure it's possible without an education. In any case, you will need to take some kind of course to increase your knowledge. I am a student and I like learning even though it can be difficult. But there are platforms like sop writing services that help students with their assignments. And as a rule they do it with high quality.

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