Implicit versus Explicit Knowledge

A Facebook note I wrote in August 2010.

I don’t know if this is of general interest; it is about my own personal struggle with some issues in Objectivism. Those who already have a perfect understanding of Objectivism might think I’m just stupid.[1]

I have a question: does “implicit knowledge” qualify as knowledge?

To give an example: the axioms of “existence” and “consciousness” are implicit in all knowledge. A child possesses this implicit knowledge from the day it is born. But he cannot express it in explicit terms until much later. The axiom of “identity” (which is actually a corollary of “existence”) is soon learned by a baby: he cannot help noticing that everything around him “is what it is and not something else” or that “everything that exists has a specific nature”. But the child cannot express this knowledge in those slightly ponderous terms. So: is it really knowledge at this early state?

Another example is concept-formation. I have been struggling lately with a puzzle: ITOE is not – or, at least not primarily – about how concepts should be formed, but about how concepts are actually formed. They are formed by observing similarities and differences between various entities, attributes and actions, and then by omitting the specific measurements (on the principles that those measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity).

That is pretty straightforward, so (you may ask) what is the problem here?

Well, I have tried to introspect, because if this is how concepts are formed, I should have some recollection that confirms the theory. But I don’t. I cannot remember having formed any concepts as child, much less then that I formed them by a process of measurement omission. Still, I do have concepts, and I actually (most of the time, at least) use them correctly. But I simply do not remember how I formed them in the first place. Did I form them myself, or did I simply take over concepts formed by others? (And then, how did those others – my parents and other adults – get their concepts?)

And I might ask any of you: do you actually remember how you formed your first concepts in your own early childhood?

Now, there are a couple of reasons why this recollection is so hard. One is that a man’s memory doesn’t reach that far into the past. This may vary from individual to individual – but who has clear memories from before two years of age? But the process of concept-formation and of learning one’s language begins already before this age.

But there is another reason that is perhaps even more important: consider how fast a child actually learns to speak. It does not take the child long to learn literally hundreds, maybe thousands of words (all of them standing for concepts) and to integrate them into sentences, expressing thoughts. This is very different to the fairly slow process of later in life learning a foreign language. How is it possible for a small child to painstakingly go through the process of measurement omission for each and every one of those hundreds, maybe thousands, of concepts? That is the question I asked myself without being able to supply a satisfactory answer. (I even, at one point, thought that this was “the final refutation of Objectivism”).

But, in fact, my doubts were unfounded.

No, children do not consciously and explicitly go through this painstaking process. It takes place implicitly, wordlessly and largely automatically. What Ayn Rand does in ITOE is, metaphorically speaking, putting the process under a magnifying glass.

To go back to the original question: does this implicit knowledge (with regard to both axioms and concept-formation) qualify as knowledge? The best way to put it is that it is not knowledge, but rather the starting point of knowledge.

Or is this simply unnecessary hair-splitting?

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The comments I got were fairly good, so I will quote some of them.

Carl Svanberg: What about the knowledge of how we form concepts? Is this implicit knowledge? Here I think it depends on whether you make a distinction between a skill and knowledge. You can know how to do things without being able to explain why it works. I know how to use a computer, but do not ask me to explain how the computer works because that is beyond me. I know how to cook food, but do not ask me to explain the chemistry, because that is also beyond me. I know how to use my hands, but do not ask me to explain how the consciousness, the brain, the nerves all interact and make my arms move like I want them to when I want them to. Obviously that is way beyond me as well. You can probably think of many other examples of your own.

I think this is a valid distinction. Another example is a child learning to walk. The child, of course, knows nothing of the mechanics of walking (or crawling or running); it is in the same position as the proverbial humble-bee who does not know that humble-bees cannot fly and doesn’t bother; it just flies, nevertheless.

Likewise, a small child learns the skill of talking and of thinking (inasmuch as thinking requires words) without first reading Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology in order to learn how to talk and to think.[2]

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Magnus Kempe: I think there are several distinct issues involved in your questions.

The one aspect I’m currently interested in is how a toddler is forming concepts. My 18-month daughter has recently started to use the word “sock” to designate “things we put on feet” – i.e. both what we think of as socks and shoes. She also recognizes and points at “bug” – little things that crawl or fly (and which adults try to keep out of the house? she’s a keen observer). In both cases, she’s perceived similarities (shapes, sizes, our actions with them) and differences (bugs are not large and don’t bark, nor do they belong to our supply of food; socks don’t fit on the head, nor do we drink from them) and she’s omitting a wide range of attributes or their measurements. She doesn’t know she’s doing that, but she knows what a “sock” or “bug” are. Soon enough, she’ll build on these concepts – she already knows “ant” as a species of “bug”– and she may even leave behind the first concept she formed so she can use more specific and delineated ones. None of her current knowledge is explicit; she’s not yet able to reflect on her conscious processes, but it’s still knowledge. To grasp axiomatic knowledge requires advanced generalizations and specializations, as well as introspection –so it remains implicit until all necessary epistemological steps are complete (I’m curious to see how many years it will take). […]

As a side note, learning a foreign language (as an adult) is not primarily a task of concept-formation, but understanding and automating: new words/symbols/sounds for already known concepts, somewhat different grammar rules, and idiomatic expressions. It’s not similar to how a child develops to understand the world and think.

Thanks for those observations, Magnus!

One thing I am interested in is how early in life concept-formation starts. Some years ago, I had a discussion with an Objectivist who was a grandmother [Ellen Moore]; and she told me that her grandchild at the age of 10 months could point to a dog and say “daw”. Earlier, I had thought that concept-formation starts approximately at the age of 2, when children utter their first primitive sentences. But obviously, it starts earlier than that. (Since I have no children of my own, I haven’t been able to study this in detail.)

We’ve strived to record our observations every day. I’m convinced she was forming concepts within months of birth, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on inside their mind for the first few months… We’re raising her bilingually[3] so we’ve noticed some developments and events that would possibly escape observers of a monolingual infant. I’ll try to add some notes from my records tomorrow.

I suspect that the lack of recall of memories before about 3 years old has something to do with a transition in how our mind holds concepts when we start to develop abstractions from abstractions. Until then conceptualization is intimately tied to perceived entities and their visible actions, they may not involve a visual-auditory symbol.

Thanks again, Magnus. Yes, what happens with a bilingually raised child is really interesting. They have to form (or grasp) the same concepts in two languages. And they would have to learn, at a very early stage, all the subtle differences in grammar between two languages.[4]

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Another thing that is largely implicit is the “choice to live”. You may remember this quote from “Galt’s speech”:

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.

But, except in the rare case of considering suicide and refraining from it, the “choice to live” is an implicit choice.

To take a mundane example: choosing to have breakfast in the morning. One does not explicitly go through the following reasoning: “Well, do I want to live today? Yes, I do. What do I have to do to remain alive till the evening? Well, I do need to eat something; otherwise I’ll starve. And since it is still morning, I’ll start with having breakfast.” Such thoughts are implicit in the choice to have breakfast; but one does not have to repeat them to oneself every morning.

One can make up more dramatic examples. One that I have used myself is this: You’re driving your car, and suddenly you encounter a ravine. You immediately put the brakes on. Obviously, the implicit premise behind this is that you don’t want to die. But equally obviously, you don’t go through a whole chain of reasoning, starting with the question: “Do I want to live or die?” If you did, it would be too late to put the brakes on, when you have reached the end of the reasoning![5]

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Bob Gifford: Regarding remembering how you formed concepts, have you formed any concepts recently? I mean, is it necessary to remember childhood experiences to see the measurement-omitted process work? As we go on learning, isn’t that process still going on? Part of the problem at this point is the question of measurement, I mean that in most higher level concepts, which is what intelligent, rational adults would be mostly focused upon, what the measurement is would not be obvious. You would have to dig a little, but if the concept was valid, it would be there somewhere.

The amazing thing about AR is that when she was asked about how she formed concepts she thought about it briefly and gave this answer (as I remember the story). She not only quickly recognized what she was doing but what that meant. That was the clarity of her mind.[6]

Well, I have a confession to make: I haven’t formed a single concept on my own in my whole life. I have merely taken over concepts already formed by others. Yet, I have a vast vocabulary or words, standing for concepts, in two languages (Swedish and English).

But I don’t think this is a problem for Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation. Grasping a concept already formed by others cannot be too different from forming a totally new concept.

One of my Swedish friends [Filip Björner] recently suggested an exercise in forming a new concept. The example he chose was “blankcoin”, meaning simply a coin that is blank. But I rejected this on two counts:

  1. This “new concept” is merely a combination of two old concepts that I already understand perfectly well (“blank” and “coin”).
  2. The concept “blankcoin” is totally useless. It wouldn’t enhance my understanding of economics (or any subject) one bit.

Consider: The function and value of a coin has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it is smooth or rough to the touch. It has everything whatsoever to do with two things:

  1. The metal content of the coin. Gold, silver, copper or iron? How many carats of gold? And, of course, how large or small is the coin?
  2. The relation between the value of the coin and the value of what one wishes to exchange it for.

As Ayn Rand writes:

concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessitynor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity. (ITOE, p. 72.)[7]

There is no necessity about the concept of “blankcoin” (or the corollary concept of “roughcoin”) – except the alleged necessity of teaching me how to form concepts.

New concepts are formed from time to time, but they are formed by geniuses. For example, Newton had to form the concept “gravity” in order to arrive at his theory of universal gravitation. And one example from Ayn Rand (there are certainly more) is the concept “second-hander”. This, of course, uses the old concepts of “second” and “hand”; but it is still a new concept that does enhance our understanding of “what makes people tick”.

Bob Gifford: I understand your feeling that you have never formed a new concept in your life, I have felt the same way. But I don’t think it really is an issue of originality or creativity. If your knowledge is valid, that is, if you can relate it to reality, then you have personally formed those concepts and they are all new to you. It is true that for a child there may be some first time stuff, but even then, the child is learning from his parents and other people. No, if you learned a concept and integrated it into your knowledge, meaning that you have knowledge of the real world, then you have formed the concept and you have used the measurement-omitted technique. […] When you find two instances of something, important or not, make a concept, give it a name, and enjoy the experience.

I see nothing I could dispute in this comment.[8] A concept, of course, is new to the child when he grasps it. And that concept-formation is speeded up by learning from parents and other adults is a point mentioned in ITOE:

… a child does not have to perform the feat of genius performed by some mind or minds in the prehistorical infancy of the human race: the invention of language … (P. 19.)

And yes, at least two instances are needed to form a concept. In the unlikely case of a child having observed only one table, it would stand in his mind as a proper noun (“the Table”). Or take a more likely case: a child grows up in a town and has as yet no experience of other towns, or cities, or villages. In this case, he would form a proper name, “the Town” and only later proceed to form the concept “town” and distinguish it from “city” and “village”.

By the way, in the Appendix to ITOE Ayn Rand mentioned that the concept “God” (in monotheistic religions) is not even an “invalid concept”, since there is only one of them. So I thought of calling this, not an “invalid concept” but an “improper proper name”. But this is more in the nature of joke. It follows, of course, that in order to form the concept “god”, you have to be a polytheist.

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Jakob Meijling: One more thing. How does the omitting of measurements work? It works by subtraction. A child forms concepts by identifying objects and having these objects named by an adult. The child tries to memorize the name of the object. Every time a similar object is identified by the same name by the adult, the child will add this to the “concept folder” in the relevant part of the brain, and notice the differences. The differences will then be omitted, leaving only the significant characteristics needed for the concept. And this “subtraction process” will go on until your brains stop working, and you die. You can experience this process anywhere: seeing new designs at a furniture trade fair; watching birds or cars or typefaces; visiting a foreign country where all artifacts look slightly different from at home.

I’m not sure I understand this. Do you mean that the differences are subtracted? Then this is just another way of saying they are omitted. For example: A child observes two tables that are different in size; then this difference in size is omitted when the concept is formed. Or one table has a round surface, the other a square surface; then this difference in shape is omitted. Or one table has four legs and the other three legs; then the number of legs is omitted. What is retained is what makes it a table: “a flat, level surface with support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects”.

It is indeed just another way of saying they are omitted, but it says something about the process. When adults form concepts consciously, they will omit the irrelevant characteristics by logic; a child will add tens and hundreds of instances of e.g. a table, and slowly arrive at the clear concept, without ever stating explicitly what Ayn Rand did.

OK, I get it.

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Time to stop wrecking my brain on this issue and think about something else.

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See also What Comes First, the Concept or the Word? and Two Observations on Definitions.


[1] Tongue in cheek.

[2] This paragraph of course is jocular.

[3] Magnus is fluent in Swedish, English and French.

[4] Once (a very long time ago) I lived in an English-speaking community in Copenhagen. The children went to Danish schools and had no difficulty switching between English and Danish. A couple of them had German and French parents, and they easily switched between all three languages.

[5] The point I mention here is taken up by Tara Smith in Viable Values, p. 105.I quote her in my own blog post The Choice to Live. Apart from that, I have not seen it discussed by Objectivists.

[6] The story is at the tail end of the Appendix to ITOE (p. 307).

[7] Ayn Rand calls this an ”epistemological razor”. It of course bears resemblance to “Occam’s razor” – the difference being that Occam said that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. For example, one should not assume there is such an entity as God, if one can explain the world without him. (This, however, is hardly an example that Occam himself gave.)

On a more personal level, I have invented an entity called “the girl in the closet”, who is supposed to perform the household chores for me and my lady-friend. So if the bed isn’t made, or the potatoes not peeled, I blame this entity, when the simple explanation is that I was absent-minded and forgot all about it,

[8] Except that he calls it a feeling. It wasn’t a feeling, it was a thought.

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