Knowledge by description

Knowledge by description

The contrasting expressions "knowledge by description" and "knowledge by acquaintance" were promoted by Bertrand Russell, who was extremely critical of the equivocal nature of the word "know", and believed that the equivocation arose from a failure to distinguish between the two fundamentally different types of knowledge. [Lazerowitz (p.403) prefers "direct knowledge" and "indirect knowledge" for "knowledge by acquaintance" and "knowledge by description" respectively. The pursuit of knowledge by acquaintance is always susceptible to what James (1890, pp.196-197) labelled “the psychologist's fallacy”: namely, the psychologists’ tendency to confuse their analyses of subjective experience with the nature of reality (“the great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report”).Parker (1945b, p.458) holds the strong opinion that the term "knowledge by description" is extremely misleading. He advocated using "knowledge merely by description".]


In 1865, philosopher John Grote distinguished between what he described as "knowledge of acquaintance" and "knowledge-about". Grote noted that these distinctions were made in many languages. He cited Greek ("γνωναι" and "ειδεναι"), Latin ("noscere" and "scire"), German ("kennen" and "wissen"), and French ("connaître" and "savoir") as examples.

Grote’s "knowledge "OF" acquaintance” is far better known today as “knowledge "BY" acquaintance” following Russell’s decision to change the preposition in a paper that he read to the Aristotelian Society on 6 March 1911.


In a similar fashion, in 1868 Hermann von Helmholtz clearly distinguished between "das Kennen", the knowledge that was “mere familiarity with phenomena”, and "das Wissen", “the knowledge of [phenomena] which can be communicated by speech”. Stressing that the "Kennen" sort of knowledge could not “compete with” the "Wissen" sort of knowledge, Helmholtz argued that, despite the fact that it might be of “the highest possible degree of precision and certainty”, the "Kennen" kind of knowledge can not be expressed in words, “even to ourselves”.


In 1890, William James, agreeing there were two fundamental kinds of knowledge, and adopting Grote's terminology, further developed the distinctions made by Grote and Helmholtz::I am acquainted with many people and things, which I know very little about, except their presence in the places where I have met them. I know the color blue when I see it, and the flavor of a pear when I taste it; I know an inch when I move my finger through it; a second of time, when I feel it pass; an effort of attention when I make it; a difference between two things when I notice it; but about the inner nature of these facts or what makes them what they are, I can say nothing at all. I cannot impart acquaintance with them to any one who has not already made it himself I cannot describe them, make a blind man guess what blue is like, define to a child a syllogism, or tell a philosopher in just what respect distance is just what it is, and differs from other forms of relation. At most, I can say to my friends, Go to certain places and act in certain ways, and these objects will probably come. (1890, p.221)


According to Russell, all knowledge is ultimately dependent upon experience, but some of it is direct, which is when we have knowledge by acquaintance, and some of it is indirect, which depends on a description of a direct experience. Thus, for example, if one feels a pain, one is directly acquainted with it and knows that she has a pain, which is knowledge by acquaintance. If someone else reports that he is experiencing a pain, then one only knows this by virtue of his description of the pain, and not because one is directly acquainted with it.



* Helmholtz, H.L.F. von (Pye-Smith, P.H. trans.), [1868/1881/1962] "The Recent Progress of the Theory of Vision", pp.93-185 in Helmholtz, H., "Popular Scientific Lectures", Dover Publications, (New York), 1962 [Paper first published in German in 1868. This (1962) volume is a selection of the translations that were first published in English in 1881] .
* James, W., "The Principles of Psychology: Volume One", Henry Holt and Company, (New York), 1890.Lazerowitz, M., "Knowledge by Description", "The Philosophical Review", Vol.46, No.4, (July 1937), pp.402-415.
* Parker, D.H. [1945a] , "Knowledge by Acquaintance", "The Philosophical Review", Vol.54, No.1, (January 1945), pp.1-18.
* Parker, D.H. [1945b] , "Knowledge by Description", "The Philosophical Review", Vol.54, No.5, (September 1945), pp.458-488.
* Russell, B., "Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description", "Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (New Series)", Vol.XI, (1910-1911), pp.108-128. [Read to the Society on 6 March 1911.]

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