Unity of knowing and doing in education and society

Traditionally, knowledge is separated from activity and passed down from teacher to student as disembodied information. For John Dewey, this tradition reinforces the false dichotomy between knowing and doing. A dichotomy that is socially destructive, and philosophically erroneous.

I largely agree with the above. The best experiences I’ve had of learning was through self-guided discovery of wanting to solve a problem. This is, for example, one of the best ways to learn to program, or math, or language, or writing, or nearly anything else. But in what way is this ‘doing’? Usually, ‘doing’ has a corporal physicality to it. Thinking happens while you sit at your desk: in fact, you might as well be disembodied. Doing happens elsewhere and requires your body.

In this post, I want to briefly discuss the knowing-doing dichotomy. In particular, I’ll stress the importance of social embodying rather than the physical embodying of ‘doing’. I’ll close with some vague speculations on the origins of this dichotomy and a dangling thread about how this might connect to the origins of science.

What do we mean by ‘doing’?

Given the examples above, I do not know to what extent my experiences with learning by wanting to solve a problem need to be physically embodied. You definitely need to use your mental tools in order to learn them but you can use them for other mental goals. Is this use of mental tools a case of doing? For example, I feel like I learn a lot by writing. But this learning does not come from the embodied experience of hand on paper or fingers on keyboard. It comes from the mental pressures of organizing my thoughts in ways accessible to other minds. And as a helpful side effect, to my own mind later on.

Thus, I don’t think that doing is overtly physical. At least not any more physical than sitting at a desk. Instead, doing seems more like the development of our ideas through application. The application might be fundamentally physical (riding a bike) or only accidentally so (writing this blog post).

However, once we open the door for physically unembodied application, an academic test or exam becomes just another application. Learning for an exam. Except it would not exactly be for an exam in Dewey’s view, it would be by an exam. You don’t learn something to apply it, but by applying it. I definitely feel that some of the best learning I’ve done in my classes was during the stress of examination. And I think that most of my students learn best not from listening to lectures but from doing problem sets and practice exams. Although maybe that’s just an artifact of the Oxford tutorial systems.

A common concern in education is that teaching to an exam or learning for an exam is not a good long term strategy. It seem that for many, learning for an exam or learning by exam is not all that conducive to the retention, application, or elaboration of knowledge. This shows the symptom of not knowing anything about a class you aced two semesters ago. But I don’t think this completely invalidates the view of learning by doing. We just have to refine it a bit. The above suggests that it matters what our disposition is towards a project. We have to think the project that we are learning through as important and consequential in its own right. This is simply not the case if you are writing an exam just to pass it. Which is a tempting view to fall into if schools and universities are treated as a certification body.

Doing as socially embodied

This brings me back to writing. Here, I think that the importance of consequence is clearest. When I write just for myself — as I used to in a TiddlyWiki notebook — the notes are not all that useful. They often tend to be lists with little reflection. Similarly, when I am taking notes on a book — where this post originated — they tend to be low effort quotes, sometimes paraphrases, and not synthesis or reflection. Not all that much better than simply highlighting a text. I am tempted to say that this note is an exception, but I think that would be a mistake. As I started writing it, I also started forming the intention of typing it up, at least as an email or — as it turns out — this blog post. It was this intent of sharing the project that is this post with other readers that kicked my reflective and rationalizing faculties into gear.

The importance of social feedback, or at least the genuine possibility of it, is why I think academics listening to the public can produce more thinking than just speaking at the public.

This reminds of how Mercier & Sperber argue that the reason we reason is to argue. I’ll let a nice THUNK video on the argumentative theory of human reason decipher that comment for you.

But in the case of writing, having to engage with other people and contribute to the knowledge commons provides me with the right disposition. It is this (potential) social context that made the project important and consequential. The embodiment that matters is not of physicality but of sociality. The act of socially embodying knowledge is the “unity of knowledge”. Thinking and doing blend together in the context of how we are embodied in the social world.

To follow Dewey in rejecting the distinction between thinking and doing, I have to embrace the social embodiment of doing and thinking. In the process, I am following Abeba Birhane in rejecting Descartes’ self-contained and self-sufficient modern mind.

Origins of the dichotomy

The connection to Descartes mind-body dualism can help us look for the origin of the thinking-doing dichotomy.

I can’t imagine that the idea of rejecting the thinking-doing dichotomy is all that new. It certainly seems counter to Platonism — although not the Socratic method — but the rejection would be right at home in Aristotle. Theoria and Parxis are interconnected, especially in ethics — a study of how actions shape your character. Yet this must have seemed revolutionary to Dewey’s peers, and it received a lot of push-back from philosophers — most notably for me: Bertrand Russell. The two philosophers disagreed widely, but it does seem like the distinction between doing and thinking was a central difference.

This suggests that the distinction was introduced at some point into modern society. Did it come with capitalism? The factory-production schooling system that Dewey was trying to reform certainly seems to have been in service of capital and empire. The modern manager is a living embodiment of the separation of knowing and doing. And just like knowing without doing is senseless or impossible, doing without knowing (why you are doing) is alienating. How does this tie back to the social? How does it tie back to the need for my work to be socially embedded?

But my account is too simple. And the origin is complicated. A useful place to look further might be in the origins of early science during the enlightenment. On the one hand, the printing press created facts and knowledge as self-contained, discoverable, and disembodied from specific individuals: building the thinking-doing dichotomy. On the other hand, it was a revolution of the mathematicians against the philosophers (at that time the former was associated with doing and the latter with thinking) that elevated observation and experiment above authority: uniting thinking and doing.

I’ll need to follow this thread in a future post.


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

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