Monday, December 22, 2014

Third person knowledge and the first person knowing

What you find below is my two posts in the online Wittgenstein course that Lois Holzman of the East Side Institute ( in New York coordinated.

You may find them interesting if you're interested in the issue of mind and body in our action.

November 24, 2014

Hi, everyone.  This is Yosuke in Hiroshima, Japan. 
Please forgive me for making a new thread because I really don’t know which thread I should choose. 
The following is my (rather long, forgive me again) response after I read the first four chapters of the Overweight Brain and Monk’s essay.


I'd like to tell you first of all that I really love the method of improvisational conversation that is summarized below.  This is what my mentors did and I'm always trying to conduct my classes in university in this way.

Fred's questions were never about knowing. He didn't ask, "What do we know about that?" He asked, "What did we see? What did we do? What can we build? What can we create? What can we organize? How can we grow?" As a therapist, he asked clients how he could be of help; he didn't-he couldn't possibly-know. They'd have to create their helping relationship and the help. And so began an improvisational conversation. As a teacher and trainer, he asked students how he might be of help to them learning whatever they had come to learn; he didn't-he couldn't possibly-know. They'd have to create the environment to learn and the learning. And so began an improvisational conversation. As a community and political organizer, he asked the community what they should do in response to a specific situation; he didn't-he couldn't possibly-know. They'd have to discover that together. And so began an improvisational conversation.

So with this spirit of improvisational conversation, I'm going to write below my thoughts that emerged, inspired by the first four chapters of the Overweight Brain and Monk's essay.


I concur with the critical stance that is expressed in the quotation below and in Monk's essay on scientism, toward the (ab)use of 'scientific knowledge' in the areas where its application is not appropriate.

Knowledge became “king” with the birth of the scientific era and it helped humankind accomplish incredible things, many of which have been of invaluable benefit (extending life, curing disease, advancing agriculture, sharing information, discovering and preserving cultures…the list almost never ends). But the depth and breadth of scientific and technological discovery has come with a price, which is that “knowing” has become ideological. An ideology is a worldview, a way of looking at things, a set of ideas that underlies beliefs and understandings and guides actions --that’s become “how things are” so we’re usually not even aware of it. The knowing ideology is simply this: human life and growth, solutions to social problems, and world progress require and depend on knowing.

However, as I'll elaborate later, I'd like to retain the use of the words like 'to know' and 'knowing.'  What we need to abandon is the ideological scientism, not the word 'to know' altogether.  It is, then, a good idea probably to distinguish different aspects of knowing.  In fact, Wittgenstein wrote in Section 78 of Philosophical Investigation as follows:

Compare knowing and saying:
how many meters high Mont Blanc is –
how the word “game” is used –
how a clarinet sounds.
Someone who is surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it is perhaps thinking of a case like the first.  Certainly not of one like the third.

I’d like to describe the aspect of knowing that is the target of the criticism of scientism as the third person knowledge, and distinguish it from the aspect of knowing that we use in our creative behaviors, which I call the first person knowing.


The third person knowledge is a typical form of knowledge in science.  This is ‘objective’ knowledge that is attained and confirmed by the ‘neutral’ observers.  The ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ observers are not real persons who are embodied and contextualized in specific ways, but the ideal notion of the third person that we conceptualize.  They have no body living in nowhere (They are indeed nobody and nowhere man). 

However, because of this idealization, the third person knowledge has abstract generalizability and has the widest scope of application among types of knowledge we have.  It is not the truth, though.  The truth, as imagined in the image of the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God, does not need to be applied.  It is just here, there and everywhere.  The knowledge of science is not this ultimate truth.  It has its limited area of application (and margin of errors).  Scientism, then, is probably a mistake to regard the third person knowledge as truth.

One of the most useful features of the third person knowledge of science is its claim of liner causality.  The linear causality is a great way of approximation to predict, plan or make things, and the products of the approximation is generally hailed as the achievement of ‘science and technology.’  Sure enough, science and technology are not truth, and therefore things can ‘go wrong’, contradicting our third person knowledge, but usually we comfortably leave our lives on approximated safety of the gigantic structure that we call an airplane in our flight.  Our idealized conception of the linear causality is great to that extent, at least.

A great thing that happened to the third person knowledge since the 20 century is that it began to be applied to itself and became self-critical.  One of the basic achievements of that self-reference is the theory of complexity.  It is found that the linear causality can only be assumed when we limit the system of operations.  Only when we conceptualize a very simple, bounded system in which things happen and interact, do we predict according to the linear causality (and disregard the ‘aberration’ that discords with the linear causality).

But the world we live in and are interested in is not that simple.  It is an evolving complex system that keeps changing.  As Vygotsky says in Fred’s play (see below), even when we tap dance, we’re not talking about a simple system where the first move of the right foot causes another part of the body.  In tap dance (I’m not a dancer myself.  Please pardon me if I make a stupid description), different parts of the body (including the brain) interact with each other, and if you think you've picked up the part that moves first among others, it is only because you've limited the area of attention and observation (after all, our consciousness is not powerful enough to capture the multitude of interactions in our body at one time).  And as you move, the interactions multiply and the dancing body (including the brain, again) self-organizes itself (autopoiesis, as Luhmann call the process).  (Incidentally, there’s no part of the body that moves first in martial arts, either.  If you pick up one part and move it deliberately, the movement will be unnatural, redundant and too slow to be called the movement of martial arts.)

Vygotsky: Aha! To me nothing moves first. Everything moves at once; the body -- not just the feet --taps. Our obsession with stages --with what comes first-- distorts history where there is no beginning and no end.

But let’s suppose there’s a super, super computer that identifies the billions of interactions of your dance.  It gives you a (huge) report of what you did as you danced.  Would this third person knowledge help you (or anybody else) dance better?  ‘It must!’ someone may say, ‘It is scientific, objective descriptions of what you actually did.  How can it NOT be helpful when it is scientific and objective!?’  To counter-argue with someone like this, I should probably have to introduce another term, the first person knowing, to explain how what you know as you do something (as the first person) is qualitatively different from what you know as you observe something (as the third person).


When you do something, you apparently know something, or at least this is how we use the words like ‘do’ and ‘know.’  But that knowledge or knowing (to emphasize the difference, I say ‘knowing’ for the knowledge of the first person, following the way Michael Polanyi used the term ‘tacit knowing.’) is embodied in your body, unlike the third person knowledge that is disembodied (and decontextualized).  So the talk of your first person knowledge must involve the conditions of your body (emotions and feelings as well as all other things that happen in your body), that are affected by the environment (context) in which your body live.

It’s not just that your mind is not powerful enough to deal with a great amount of information that the super, super computer gives you, but that the third person knowledge of the super, super computer is disembodied and decontextualized, and for that reason qualitatively different from your first person knowing.

On top of that, there is not a predetermined boundary of your action.  You’re an evolving system that interacts with your environment (including other people) and the environment (i.e., something that is not you which affects you) will change as you act.  The boundary of your action of the past may temporarily be described as such, but you keep changing as long as you live.  You’ll never know what you’ll do until you do it, and you keep doing something new all the time.

Take the case of the description of language.  We have the third person knowledge of language in the form of school grammar and scientific linguistics.  But it is decontextualized and disembodied knowledge, and it describes the idealized concept of language (Competence or I-language for Chomsky, for example), not the actual language you use in your body at a particular moment with particular persons in a particular context.  School grammar or scientific linguistics is certainly a type of knowledge (the third person knowledge), but it is not your first person knowledge.  If we mean the first person knowing by the expression ‘understanding’, the following Wittgensteinean passage from the Overweight Brain concurs with what I’m trying to say in this essay.

How we understand what language is has everything to do with how we use language, how we talk to ourselves and to one another, and --and this may surprise you-- how we think and what we think about.


Does the third person knowledge NOT help us in our action at all?  As a teacher-educator in the field of teaching English as a foreign language, and a clumsy learner of martial arts, this is a very crucial question.  Our common sense tells us that that the third person knowledge can be of some help in a limited way, but if you begin to rely on it, it may be abused by your belief of (a mild version of) scientism and harmful.  It is important to realized the third person knowledge in whatever form is not only qualitatively different from your first person knowing, but also an extremely reduced version of knowledge in terms of quantity, disembodiement and decontextualization.  Knowing the limit of the third person knowledge (which seems brilliant and indeed is very useful in dealing with impersonal objects) is essential when you deal with the knowledge (or rather, knowing) concerning your action.

I should write in detail, but my time is running up, so let me just quote from Dewey’s Democracy and Education, a master piece written about one hundred years ago.

Dewey who values thinking in experience is critical of knowledge and theory.  For Dewey, thinking in experience is about the future that is coming, whereas knowledge and theory is about the past that is gone and fixed.

Hence the deluge of half-observations, of verbal ideas, and unassimilated "knowledge" which afflicts the world. An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance. An experience, a very humble experience, is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (or intellectual content), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory. It tends to become a mere verbal formula, a set of catchwords used to render thinking, or genuine theorizing, unnecessary and impossible. Because of our education we use words, thinking they are ideas, to dispose of questions, the disposal being in reality simply such an obscuring of perception as prevents us from seeing any longer the difficulty. (Dewey, 1916. pp. 138-139)

Knowledge and theory, then, becomes useful only when it is regarded as a small hypothesis that may potentially be relevant in a new situation.  You may want to turn your (mostly unsayable) first person knowledge into a kind of third person knowledge, but that may be more harmful than helpful for future action of yours and others’, for the third person knowledge is of the past and the future may be very different from the past (and you may not be what you used to be).

While all thinking results in knowledge, ultimately the value of knowledge is subordinate to its use in thinking. For we live not in a settled and finished world, but in one which is going on, and where our main task is prospective, and where retrospect -- and all knowledge as distinct from thought is retrospect -- is of value in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future. (Dewey, 1916. pp. 145-146)

Probably I should have finished this small essay not with Dewey’s passage that is not very easy to read, but with Michael Polayni’s that is more readable.  But I didn't have time to find the book in my office or the time to write my original argument.  Yet, as I said at the beginning, this is part of my improvisational conversation, and I didn't mean it to be a piece of writing that finishes all the arguments in the future (no one should be arrogant to try to write such a thing).  So, unable to find a clever sentence to finish this essay, I just say, that’s all for now.

Thank you.


November 25, 2014

Hi, Steve, Jim, Yuji (or Moro-san, as we'd say in Japanese), and Paola

Thank you for your comments which improvised my thoughts further.


My understanding of autopoiesis is through Luhmann who expanded the theory of Maturana and Varela.  What the concept amounts to, I'd say, is the claim that all you are, do, and experience is only made by you, not by other things, which Luhmann describes as the environment.

Jim said:
 Our senses function as they do in relation to material reality and yet they do not transmit to us through our nervous systems what we take to be actual reality. As best as I can determine (I'm not a biologist) what we get is a bio-chemical response to reality, not reality itself.

As you read this passage now, the understanding that you construct is based on your prior denotations and connotations that you've associated with words, phrases, ideas and whatever that come with this passage. The standardized dictionaries may give you an idea that as long as the same words are shared between you and me, the same ideas must be shared as well.  Wittgenstein rejected this notion, and Luhmann may say that because the words are not the 'input' (i.e., something that comes straight to you as a material) but the 'perturbation' (i.e., something that may trigger some reactions in you but does not have direct control of you), the claim that the 'same ideas' will be reproduced in you as a reader is most unlikely.

On top of that, you experience a lot as you read.  The room may be rather cold, and you may be hungry, slightly irritated by frequent phone calls, worrying about the meeting you’re to have in an hour.  All these things affect your reading.  It’s not surprising at all that you react quite differently to the same text on different occasions.  Your cognition and action cannot be separated from the conditions of your history, body, context and other things that make you.

In this sense, my first person knowing could only be known by me in my body (including the brain), my environment and my history.  But I only say that it 'could be known' because this knowing can only be theoretically assumed.  As soon as I know what I know, that knowing changes 'I', and the knowing becomes something of the past.  The first person knowing, or maybe knowing in general, is always in the process of recursion.

So, in terms of embodiment, embedding in time and space, history, and process in me, my first person knowing is not accessible to anyone else either in the form of the third person knowledge or in other forms.


Yuji's question in this regard is very interesting for me.
My question is how first person knowledge is related to this socialness of knowing.
Apparently there is such a relationship as master/disciple or teacher/student, as distinct from information transmitter/information receptor (as in machine). A master (or a teacher) does influence the disciples (or students) and let them develop in a way that is not conceivable without the master (or teacher).  We assume that there's a 'social' relation between the master and her disciples.

But first of all, we have to remember that there's no direct transfer of knowledge from the master to the disciple (or from a person to another, in general) because we're autopoietic beings (autopoiesis systems).  What even the best master can do is to affect you, not mold you as he or she wishes -- if you're a teacher or a parent, I assume you know what I mean.  A disciple can only become what he can become.  As Dewey said, a teacher can educate somebody only indirectly by means of the environment. What a teacher can do is to arrange the environment (including the teacher him/herself) for the students.

Yet, this does not mean that there's nothing a master can do to better influence the disciples.  In traditional settings, a master and the disciples spend most of their time together, and the disciples learn the way of life (or the form of life, as Wittgenstein would say) of the master.  At the same time, the master learns how the disciples perceive, feel, think and act.  They probably become more similar than before by spending time together.

A general principle (or tenet) a master gives occasionally to the disciple makes the best advantage of the experience of living together and learning who they are with each other.  The master and disciples probably become similar enough as to make communication between without much trouble.

In martial arts, occasional teaching from mouth to ear ('kuden' 「口伝」) is preferred to systematic teaching of the third person knowledge.  A master prefers to teach verbally only when an appropriate occasion emerges for that teaching.  The oral teaching is more effective than teaching according to a predetermined curriculum because the embodiment, embedding in time and place, histories and processes, all these elements that are essential in the first person knowing, can become asymptotic (closer than anything else, but not identical) between them.

Teaching the third person knowledge, typically through books, often disregards embodiment, embedding in time and space, histories and processes -- if only for brevity, I may describe them altogether as 'contingent elements'--.  A lesson learned from a book can misguide a reader because of the lack of similarities of the contingent elements.  A lesson to be taught should be selected by a teacher who is familiar with the contingent elements of the student.


As I've written so far, I found Paola's comment.
Is this "first person knowledge” then, as Yuji is describing it, a ‘private’ knowledge? In either case, how can ‘knowing’ be private if we are social beings? I like the Russian offer better. Another example of how meaning changes in different languages....

As Paola says in the last sentence, this is probably a matter of how different persons use the same language differently.  But I may defend my use of the terms by saying that whereas the first person knowing (I prefer 'knowing' to 'knowledge' for the first person knowing, as I want to emphasize that it is more of a process than of a product) may be 'private' in that it is only accessible to the first person alone, the third person knowledge is not private but public.  (Some of you may recall Wittgenstein's argument about 'private language' here and you’re absolutely right).

The third person knowledge about objects can be transmitted quite easily and that is why science and technology have drastically changed the surface of the earth over the last few centuries.  The third person knowledge as a product can be transferred, stored, added, and combined quite objectively.  We test its validity by experiments that are publicly observable.

But if you want to apply the third person knowledge to your personal skills, you need to adapt it as your contingent elements demand.  This is where a good teacher comes in.  A good teacher is someone who understands not only the third person knowledge, but also the students (their style of the first person knowing).  But a good teacher can only 'help.'  In order to acquire the first person knowing, the student must change him/herself to create a new self that accommodates the first person knowing.

To change our perspective, let's think how we build the third person knowledge.  It was of course not given by God once and for all.  We all started from our first person knowing.  Attempting to convey the first person knowing to other people, people have invented ways of expressing the first knowing, sophisticated language use, and increased its generalization and abstraction.  The print culture which enabled communication between people in different time and place promoted the generalization and abstraction, and our verbal behavior changed so much as to produce a lot of the third person knowledge, and it led the prosperity of science and technology of modern times.

To sum, the first person knowing is private, but, as Dewey says, it can be communicated (but not directly transferred).  It may further turn into the third person knowledge when it achieves sufficient generalization and abstraction, but then it becomes so remote from the first person knowing.  In other words, the first person knowing can become social, although it is inherently private.  The first person knowing can be socially communicated, but as it is inherently private, it cannot be directly transmitted as in the case of the third person knowledge.

Well, that's all for now.  Thank you.


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