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The Philosophy of Education: Knowing how and Knowing that in the Classroom

  • May 12, 2013 · 1:00 PM
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The Philosophy of Education

Knowing How and Knowing that in the Classroom


Greetings fellow philosophers. I would first like to extend my apology for the considerable gap between meetings, engendered by a combination of difficulties finding a suitable location after becoming aware of problems with the last location I found and various personal problems. I trust that the true philosophers have not stopped thinking about philosophy on their own and that the meet will be enriched by the extra time for reflection.


The topic I propose this time is broadly the philosophy of education. If the discussion is fruitful, we may have occasion to discuss different aspects of the large topic in more detail on future occasions. I owe this suggestion to my good friend the eminent SF philosophy Meetup member Kenny Burgher.


Since all areas of philosophy are concerned with the proper way of thinking, and education concerns itself with the best means of reproducing the best thinking in current and future generations, there is an important sense in which the philosophy of education is not just a branch of philosophy like the philosophies of mind or science, but an extension of all of them which asks how we are to decide which philosophies to teach to whom, when, and how to teach them best. After all, any change in the world through the understanding of philosophy has to be taught if it is not going to be confined to a few people. The philosophy of education is of direct relevance to the possible praxis of philosophy, and as such was of great interests to Plato, John Dewey and the pragmatists, and others who gave thought to applying philosophy to everyday living.


This is too broad a subject to be fruitful in a short discussion. To narrow the focus while staying in keeping with the breadth of the subject in spirit, I propose basing our more precise question on the classical and common-sensical distinction between 'knowing how' and 'knowing that' articulated as such by Gilbert Ryle. Assuming that it is a real distinction in ways of knowing, of each it can be asked how it is best acquired, whether it can be taught and if so how, as well as what the interaction between them is. Quite manifestly, each of the ordinary subjects we learn in school involves both. The question is which should take precedence in the choice of examples and perspectives. While it is clear that you can't have one without the other, the question of priority is not, and neither is the question of how much time to devote to either. Therefore, I propose the precise question: 'given some unspecified subject matter involving both motor and verbal habits and an abstract body of theory justifying them, which should be taught first and why?' As some will no doubt notice, this formulation is closely based on Ryle's views of abstract knowledge of laws and principles as warrants to make certain kinds of assertions or do certain kinds of things.


I don't see the adoption of some of Ryle's terminology as creating a bias hindering other points of view; it provides a specific starting point to anchor discussion with which others are allowed, and even encouraged, to vehemently disagree. As for the phrase 'some unspecified subject matter', though, it is there for a reason I firmly trust in. While it may seem easier to argue about subjects on a case-by-case basis, I think it most fruitful philosophically to attempt formulation of general principles without the crutch of subject matter knowledge and to subsequently see if they pass hold muster in light of the precise nature of given subject matters. At least it forces a general discussion, even if none of the initial results hold water in light of the subject matter. It also provides a framework for dealing with the related but non-identical question of whether learning is best done by doing. I welcome feedback if the question seems loaded to anyone, but don't believe it to be so.


Cheers, and hope to see many of you Sunday the 5th. I will attach files related to the question shortly.


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  • philo-sopher

    there is a very interesting project at LMU philosophy on education and "intellectual virtues", in fact a philosophy professor has actually started an intellectual virtue based charter school, it is up and running. Here is the link if you are interested:

    June 19, 2013

  • joel h.

    Thank you David. I've always wondered what archeologists know about their subject. Perhaps with education in general it would bear fruit to define the ends and then look at the means of getting there. Good discussion, lots of food for thought. Looking forward to the next one.

    May 19, 2013

  • David S.

    Joel, a subject matter involving both technical and non-technical aspects would in my opinion have been a more ideal test case. When the ability is well defined, as in computer programming OR musical dexterity, you can empirically assess what combination works--and I stated in the topic introduction that some combination was almost assuredly involved. The interesting question for me is what one can say in general, for the cases where empirical results are not forthcoming. Liberal studies like literature or history or social sciences with poorly defined domains, like sociology or economics, would have provided the best litmus tests for philosophical purposes. The very fact that what counts as knowing how or that is difficult to assess in these cases makes it harder to start, but also more rewarding to continue. Cheers.

    May 14, 2013

  • joel h.

    The example of writing viable computer code directly from reading a text book about it, without incremental steps, was poorly chosen, the concept of a Turing machine misses the point. Consider instead the example of playing a musical instrument proficiently after only reading a book. It's possible but would be rare.

    Someone’s ‘knowledge-that’ is only mind-stuff that evaporates with death, the only evidence of which are the artifacts left behind, perhaps a recording or painting, etc., or that other ‘mind-stuff’, memes. I still view ‘knowledge-that’ as mutable and approximate, never mapping directly onto reality ‘as-it-is’, but more or less useful in its application to the individual’s environment.

    May 14, 2013

  • joel h.


    May 13, 2013

  • Mary P.

    Hi, Sorry that it's too late to attend. It's 12:55 and I'm in the Embarcadero. May see you at the next meeting.

    May 12, 2013

  • Mary P.

    Is it too late to attend? Where is the location?

    May 12, 2013

  • Suzanne

    I am so sorry to cxel so last minute, but my car 'check engine' light came on when I went to leave today, and it's riding/idling rough-I think I should bring the car in ASAP (today). See everyone next time. Have a good discussion.

    May 12, 2013

  • David S.

    Phil, what are you referring to?

    May 8, 2013

  • Aleksey

    I will do my best to attend and might also bring someone along.

    May 8, 2013

  • Phil F.

    Ask attendees

    May 7, 2013

  • Elijah A

    I am enamored with the abstract and abstruse. I look forward to engaging bright minds and commingling perspectives.

    April 25, 2013

  • David E

    Happy we're meeting again. Thanks, David

    April 24, 2013

  • Jeff G

    Mothers Day?

    April 22, 2013

  • David S.

    I am sorry, I had to change the date of the meeting due to a sudden emergency that will have me out of town on the 5th.

    April 21, 2013

  • matt

    sounds fun!

    April 20, 2013

  • Suzanne

    Looking forward to the discussion and seeing everyone again.

    April 19, 2013

  • Marty

    Hi David, Good to hear from you. I don't know yet whether I can make it, but I like the topic and will attend (and RSVP) if I can. Marty

    April 19, 2013

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