You can only know what you think about: a response to David Didau

The knowledge / thinking debate has rumbled on for a while.

David Didau critiqued my view that  you only know what you think suggesting that “it’s disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that thought can precede knowledge”.

My view is that it does, not only can you “think about what you don’t know” but that you have to reify knowledge in order to substantiate the view that you can’t “think about what you don’t know”.

In other words knowledge becomes a discursive term, which conflates thinking and knowing.

What is thinking?

Central to human cognition is thinking. Thinking is the way we sequence, organise and then manage the relation of things. Thinking is making meaning. Memory, on the other hand, enables us to store our thoughts. It allows us to impose time and space onto reality. Imagine, if you can, a world where we had no concept of time or space? In turn time and space imposes meaning onto causal events. The bat hits the ball and the ball goes over the net. Memory allows the sequencing of causal effects and is, in effect, the mechanism that allows us to distinguish cause from effect.

Memory is a brilliant survival mechanism it enables us to remember the meaning we made of causal events in the past in order that we can better manage them in the future. That is not to say that the meaning we make of them is true  Often it is not. It can be evolutionary useful to simply invent reasons for things we cannot explain. It often validates what we can explain. Religion’s power of explanation can give religion power. It is not necessarily based on truths.

So, to sum up, you cannot think without memory but memory is not thinking. In the natural world there are millions of causal events every nano- second. We frame the causal events that are meaningful to us, constrained by perception, and impose time and space onto those causal events.

Memory is not a repository of knowledge but is something entirely different. What is stored in memory cannot be said to be knowledge because knowledge is a philosophical proposition about the relation of things. What is stored is the residue of thought: our beliefs about the world, perception and our imagination. Only some of it can be described as knowledge.

What is knowledge?

Plato famously defined knowledge as “justified true belief“, that is to say, knowledge is the relationship between what we think and something in the external world that can be said to be true. As Wittgenstein stated “he believes it, but it isn’t so,” can be true;  “he knows it, but it isn’t so” cannot. So knowledge isn’t thought or thinking but exists as something that is dependent upon some justifiable claim to truth in the world that considers both how we bring something, or other, into being (epistemology) and the nature of that something, or other, in the  “real” world (ontology).

In fact, in terms of memory, there is no material difference between what we know and what we don’t know. Our imagination, for example, is really the “meaning of” that which is not true and could not be described as knowledge. We cannot know our imagination. In a material sense, cognitively speaking, other than in its relation to the external world our imagination is the same as our knowledge. it’s just not true.

Knowledge is therefore not what we think about but the objective relations of what we think “about” and something or other in the world that is accepted to be true by whatever means used to define the truth..

Let’s play a thought game

if I teach you that there is such a thing as a “skadoooooosh”, can it be said that you know something? Clearly you don’t as I have previously shown the meaning of something can only be understood in it’s relation to other things whether that be in the natural world or the social world.  You can still think about the word “skadoooooosh”. You are probably doing it now.  Have I heard that before? Sounds familiar etc etc.

If I was to creep up behind you and shout “skadooooosh” it would invoke some level of thinking and reaction .You can think about something you don’t know about or even know what it is.

if I tell you that a “skadoooosh” is something that certain men in the outer Hebrides call “certain types” of women you would indeed be able to give this some quite serious thought. You would have to think about it before you could know it. You would have to think about it’s relations to other things such as prior knowledge of men, women, gender stereotypes, sexism and mysogyny. You have to place “skadoooosh” within the relation of things before you can “claim” to know it. Even so it isn’t knowledge.

Once I have explained what a “skadoooosh” is, and you have placed it into the relation of things, you still don’t know it. A. Feminist could possibly write a thesis on it but it is not yet knowledge. For a “skadoooosh” to be considered to be knowledge it has to have to be objectively true in some way.

In fact it isn’t true. No one in the outer Hebrides uses that word, or at least not to my knowledge. Nor does it describe the relation of things. It can’t; because it’s not true. I can’t know that the sun is square because it isn’t. I can, think about it. There is a sun and there is a concept of square. Quite simply you can think about things you cannot possibly know.

The reification of knowledge

The thinking / knowledge argument is complicated because quantitative researchers in fields such as cognitive psychology and education do not tend to consider metaphysics.That is not to say all psychologists or educationalists don’t; they do. Rather this tends to be a problem with certain quantitative researchers.

As a consequence they often reify knowledge, that is to say, bring it into being without saying what it is. It simply is, facts about things, a curriculum, a mind set or a complex multi variant issue such as feedback. In effect, a discursive term to describe something or other that hasn’t been properly defined. The thinking / knowledge argument is, in itself, an outworking of our ability to think about that which we don’t know. We can talk about knowledge without particularly defining it. Can you claim to know something you haven’t particularly defined? You can think about it, it can be a thought, but you can’t know it.

The fallibility of cognition creates memes

Therein lies the problem. Once you stop thinking about what you “claim” to know memes start to creep into discourse. We can, if we are not careful, begin to equate thinking with knowledge and stop thinking about the relations that bring knowledge into being.  We can start to believe that thinking is knowledge and visa versa.

That is why social research is careful to make truth claims, declare a metaphysical position and define terms adequately. Quantitative researchers in social fields often don’t do that because they can’t. The hypothesis would probably collapse subject to scrutiny and metaphysics.


There is no such thing as knowledge, as a “thing in itself”, rather it is the relations of things. It is self evident that thinking brings knowledge into being, before we can know something we have to think about its relations to other things whether, consciously, or subconsciously. You can think about what you don’t know but you can’t know what you haven’t thought about. Thought precedes knowledge.


16 thoughts on “You can only know what you think about: a response to David Didau

  1. Your thought experiment relies on this condition: “if I teach you that there is such a thing as a “skadoooooosh””. So, what if you don’t teach that? You cannot think about it. As soon as you teach it, it becomes known. Clearly what is known is minimal, but it allows us to wonder what skadoooosh is. And that’s it. It will be mere guesswork until more information is provided. And at that point more thinking will be possible. This is perhaps an irrelevance in the scheme of things – maybe it doesn’t really matter which precedes what, but clearly knowledge comes before thought. Your only real hope is to argue that just being told skadoosh is a thing isn’t really knowledge. But I say it is, so that’ll get us nowhere.

    The thinking you display in this post requires you to have synthesised so much knowledge that the act of writing it is sufficient to undermine your position. It’s like female columnists arguing that feminism is a bad thing; they’re only able to argue that *because* of feminism.

    Now we do agree that there is no such thing as knowledge as a thing in itself – I’m pretty sure no one is arguing that. I really don’t think there are in fact any cognitive psychologists who think “there is no difference between knowledge and thinking.” If there are, I’d be genuinely interested in discovering how they’ve arrived at this baffling conclusion.

    So saying something is self-evident when in fact it isn’t is beneath you. So how about this:

    It is self-evident that thinking is required for knowledge to be integrated into our schema of prior knowledge because this integration requires us to think about the relationships between new and pre-existing knowledge. This can then bring new knowledge into being.

    But it all starts with having some*thing* to think about.

    1. Thanks for replying David it is an interesting debate.

      I think you are just re-iterating the classic meme that conflates thoughts with knowledge. I cannot posit any argument about thinking without you being able to say “arrr but that requires knowledge”. In effect it becomes a language game because you haven’t defined your terms properly.

      What you are doing is in fact offering a conceptual placebo for those others who haven’t defined their terms properly and who wish to believe that knowledge is more important than thinking. Or knowledge is more important than it is. Thinking becomes undifferentiated from knowledge.

      “As soon as you teach it, it becomes known.”

      It doesn’t. It can be misunderstood, it can be completely failed to be understood. It could be untrue. I can teach it and it may still not be known. To be known it has to be interpreted in terms of its relationship with other things. That requires thinking.

      “Your only real hope is to argue that just being told skadoosh is a thing isn’t really knowledge. But I say it is, so that’ll get us nowhere.”

      Your only hope is that there are enough people out there who will accept that as an argument. That is the point of the BLOG. Poor quantitative research relies on the fact that there are enough people out there who will buy into the concept that it is because I say it is. You have written about effect sizes yourself. You are doing the same here – “It is because I say it is”. I reject that on the basis that I write above.
      I don’t dispute the fact that we maybe arguing about the semantics of definition but that’s my point. I define these things you don’t.
      As I say above Knowledge is the relation of things. You have to think about it before you can know it. What you think about is not knowledge.

      “The thinking you display in this post requires you to have synthesised so much knowledge that the act of writing it is sufficient to undermine your position”

      Again you are back to the same language game. I cannot posit any argument that you cannot turn around and say that. You are conflating thinking with what we think about. Thinking, thoughts and knowledge are all different things.

      “I really don’t think there are in fact any cognitive psychologists who think there is no difference between knowledge and thinking.So saying something is self-evident when in fact it isn’t is beneath you.”

      In effect that’s exactly what you are doing. By failing to define terms you are able to conflate; thinking, thoughts and knowledge into an irreducible thing. You have to because it’s the only way you can sustain your argument. That is the point of the blog.

      Thinking brings knowledge into being because knowledge is the relation of things dependent upon external validation. We cannot think without thoughts but our thoughts are not knowledge.

      You can only sustain your argument by conflating the two and you’ve done it again. By implication you are effectively suggesting that everything we think is knowledge. Fine but place your view within a tradition that agrees with you and we can debate it.

      1. I’m only playing the language game that you started. But language is pretty important here – it is only by articulating arguments that we can dispute meanings. So to dismiss an argument as mere language games seems a bit tautological. This particular argument appears to boil down to what we mean by knowledge. As such, if we were, for the sake or argument, to accept my definition, then clearly knowledge precedes thought. But, equally, if we were to accept your definition then, sure, thinking precedes knowledge.

        My issue here is that your definition is a bit all or nothing. Why does knowledge have to be “the relation of things dependent upon external validation”? I agree that a good definition should include this idea, but you can’t will this into being through sheer effort of will unless you believe like Jung and Chomsky et al that some knowledge is innate. Is this what you believe? If so I can see where we’re going wrong.

      2. I am not dismissing the argument because it is a language game but rather, in my view, the conflation of “thinking and knowledge” results in a language game.

        I have also dealt with innate knowledge (apriori) such as “time” and “space”. I think Chomsky argues that we have a pre-disposition to language. The classic argument for apriori thought is Kant and I have accepted his premise in the BLOG; spatial and temporal relations. I don’t think anyone engaging with this debate is alluding to “apriori” knowledge.

        As far as I can tell you haven’t defined knowledge you simply seem to suggest that everything we think is knowledge.

        Once you accept that everything we think is not knowledge and that knowledge is not a “thing in itself” then you can only define knowledge in relation to something else at which point you have think about it before you can know it.

        We may have to agree to disagree but I think you have conceded that an argument that sees thinking preceding knowledge is not “disingenuous in the extreme”.

  2. OK. Here’s what I think:

    1) ‘Information’ exists externally.
    2) When we encounter information it becomes knowledge.
    3) The process of encounter information can, I suppose, be called thought.
    4) Thinking can produce new ideas and insights, but…
    5) Processing more information enables us to think in more depth and breadth.

    By following this chain of reasoning, I can conclude that knowledge and thinking could be said to occur simultaneously. If so, the idea that they are different becomes even more untenable. How, or why, would you seek to differentiate between them? They are essentially the same thing or as near to damn it.

    So, in that case, I would need to reformulate my original statement: thinking cannot occur in the absence of information. My definition of knowledge would include any and all information we personally encounter. If there are things that we think in the absence of this then I don’t think we can ever know what they might be. It may be possible to identify information-less thoughts in the realm of philosophy, but I can’t see that this is of any practical use in the classroom.

    1. I would adapt what you have said into the he following

      1) knowledge exists externally.
      2) Thinking about knowledge creates a subjective knowing
      3) Thinking can produce new ideas, insights and better understanding
      4) Processing more knowledge in addition to subjecting that knowledge to more thinking enables us to think in more depth and breadth and gain new insights.

      I don’t disagree

      However you try and conflate thinking and knowledge again based on the fact they occur simultaneously. However that does not seem to reflect the linear temporal way you outline the stages 1-5. And the fact that they occur simultaneously does not mean they are the same.

      “By following this chain of reasoning, I can conclude that knowledge and thinking could be said to occur simultaneously. If so, the idea that they are different becomes even more untenable. How, or why, would you seek to differentiate between them? They are essentially the same thing or as near to damn it.”

      I differentiate between knowledge and thinking because they are not the same.

  3. One problem is too often we think of “knowledge” or “memories” or the like as “stuff” in our head. And there are consequences of that. Teaching is about getting that “stuff” in the heads of students. In a way, teaching becomes more like a garage sale – trying to convince students to buy this “stuff.” Online learning becomes just about how to “deliver” this “stuff” (this “content”) to students, who we want to “contain” this “stuff”. We should perhaps abolish words like “deliver” and “content” with respect to teaching and learning. We should focus on helping students learn how to learn instead of trying to fill their heads with stuff to memorize.

    You might these resources helpful. There are a couple of different phrases to describe this misconception(s) here, based on the research/theory underlying them. One name for the misconception is the “Cognition necessarily Involves Content” position. Daniel Hutto, an advocate of radical enactivism, refutes this in articles such as these:
    A less radical perspective is embodied cognition research on memory – which also shows that memories aren’t simply “things” we “store” in our head and “use” (somehow) for thinking:

    A second description for this might come from research on conceptual change (misconceptions, ‘naive physics’ and the like) by Michilene Chi and others. We tend to think of things in terms of objects or substances or “stuff”, even if they are really more like processes or, as you mention, relationships or the like. Examples include concepts like energy, electrical current, heat, etc. We think of “information” as a kind of “stuff” that is delivered and shared, but it is a reduction in uncertainty, a narrowing of possibilities.

    To be fair to David, that second body of research does emphasize how our prior knowledge and habits very strongly influence (usually diminish the impact of) what we learn and how we think. But the answer isn’t to merely deliver more and better ‘stuff’ to students and hope that it will magically clear out the bad stuff in their heads. Teaching is more like coaching – you have to help students unlearn some bad habits and learn some new strategies and skills. Michael Jordan must have had the best lecturer of all time! 😉

  4. Hi there,

    I wonder if there is also a question about where ‘knowledge’ comes from, that sometimes gets skimmed over in these discussions? (I don’t mean by you) Babies and small children quite clearly think about stuff (it’d be pretty worrying to assert that they don’t). However, they don’t have any ‘knowledge’ in the sense that it is often used by people in education, because they don’t have any language with which to process their experiences. So, their thinking is a direct result of their sensory experiences of the world. They build memories about people and places through all of their senses, with smell coming before sight as small babies cannot yet focus properly. It is this kind of ‘knowledge’ that we prioritise in the early years (although I’m not sure I like the way that knowledge is being used to cover everything we come into contact with, I much prefer the word ‘experience’.) Once children can talk and understand language, we can start to share other bits of knowledge that have been passed down, the things that we have previously found out or agreed that we ‘know’ via a common term (what the colour ‘blue’ is, or how a volcano works, for instance). But children can still quite clearly think about stuff, and how it relates to other stuff, before we tell them all the stuff that we know.

    It strikes me that the things we experience directly will often become more deeply embedded bits of ‘knowledge’, that we can think about more deeply. If a child has *been* to the seaside, he or she will be able to think about it more deeply than if it has only been seen in a book. The multi sensory nature of experience trumps the ‘flat’ knowledge that resides in books – it simply goes in more easily, maybe? Perhaps this is what worries me about some of the ‘pass on core knowledge’ argument. That you can, as the saying goes, lead a horse to water, but you also have to make it want to drink. That I can place something in my memory quite easily, but if it is not deeply embedded there, then it will quickly fade away.

    This might make you giggle: https://suecowley.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/my-common-core/

    1. Hi Sue

      I did have a giggle at your BLOG. I was once hit with a metre ruler because someone else had failed to hit 200 facts about the River Nile. I laughed hence the punishment. Such was the nature of “progressive” education in the 70’s.

      You are absolutely right. Knowledge is a philosophical proposition; thinking and thoughts something different entirely. I think I have shown that and you make even more points about the issue.

      The problem lies in our capacity to think conectually and metaphorically; we often “think” in terms of the physical world of experience (as you say). So the analogy is that thinking is almost like filling up a bucket of water. We get confused between the subject itself (knowledge) and how we think about it (filling up a bucket of water).

      You are right multi sensory cognition is much better for retaining information. Core knowledge is wrong on so many levels it’s untrue. And I also agree that the memory argument used by the cognitivists will eventually turn sour on them because their research is built on sand

      Thanks for the post, Peter

  5. Hey, now I know your name 😉

    I’ve been carrying on thinking about this, and I reckon that the bit people forget is the role of *feeling* in the thinking that we do. It’s not true that we can only think about what we know, because we can also think about what we *feel* as well (and that is much harder to quantify as being ‘true’ or not). Also, emotion is tangled up together with the stuff we call ‘knowledge’, e.g. my feelings about the role of royalty within our society will affect how important I think it is to learn a list of kings and queens of England. If that makes sense … (I suspect this is kind of what you are saying above).

    I really hesitate to stereotype (and I hope that you’ll forgive me) but I think the role of emotion in learning is being underplayed at the moment because so many of the blog writers on the subject of cognition are male. It’s almost like it is a reaction to what some seem as a ‘feminised’ or motherly view of the child. I saw a comment on someone’s blog the other day that said “well done for arguing in a rational and logical way, rather than appealing to emotion”. And I thought: hey what’s wrong with emotion? To my ears, the ‘debates’ sometimes sound like some kind of sixth form debating society and after a while this just totally makes me want to switch off and get back to the real, emotional world where people don’t just know stuff but do lots of feeling stuff as well (which is why I’m hiding from Twitter right now).

    1. Great post. There was some research that blew mildly noxious smell into a room. It was used as part of a study of moral questions. Group with the smell and without. They found the smell had an impact people were meaner and took a harsher view of moral issues.

      Emotion is a factor but so is perception and psycho-biography. You maybe right about male bloggers. I have no idea why knowledge has become so fashionable. As you say it seems to me to be a very simplistic view of cognition. Perhaps therein lies the reason…!

      Come out of hiding though, your comments and posts are very valuable.

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