Knowing and Doing: Are They Different?

Our minds love classifications, neat boxes that we can put stuff in. But, often, these boxes are just created by us rather than being a fact of nature, though we seem to assume that nature is indeed organised in neat boxes as we want them. The dualism that we apply to knowing and doing is one of those false classifications, which we created perhaps to preserve the dignity of what we call wisdom from the messy realities of the world, but as we keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do, this dualism has been outed as false, and even dangerous.

Indeed, I am just quoting Dewey more or less in saying that Knowing and Doing are actually one and the same thing. There is no knowing without doing and doing for a sentient being involves some knowing all the time. This is the principal difference that human beings have from other animals, for whom doing and knowing may not be connected - and indeed, therefore, an animal may not know anything at all.

So, this argument that one must learn the theory before applying it, misrepresents both the nature of theory and of application. A theory is not just a set of assumptions, but tested and validated ones; so there could be no theory without some element of application presumed into it. And, all of us do things with a set of expectations how this would turn out - our theories, perhaps as yet untested - and therefore, no application really happens without a theory built into it. 

If the proposition of knowing and doing being two different things is really so mistaken, why do so many people believe in it, and indeed, defend it so vigorously? The reason perhaps is that the knowing-doing dualism underpins the system of social power that we have set up. The Hindus had this up-in-your-face casteism, where some people were supposed to think and others were to do the things, but more or less every society developed this concept of social power based on the pristine idea of theoretical knowledge. In that sense, to paraphrase Marx, history of all societies is of the nature of knowledge and who owns it.

At this very moment, when the economic inequity has perhaps reached an hitherto unsurpassed peak, it makes sense to revisit the Knowing-Doing dualism and see whether that indeed is the source of the problem. The case is not just for an activist education, but also a call for knowledge economies to be more directly connected, and therefore, be more relevant to real life. And, indeed, the Internet plays a part, but fundamentally altering the principles of access to and currency of knowledge, which presents an unique opportunity to create new models of knowing-doing.

The education system I am working to promote is one where knowing and doing are not two different activities, but one and the same. This is about having an approach to learning, so that one absorbs and learns from everything happening around him/her, and does so not by withdrawing from real life but being in it. The knowledge in this process are not in content but in the process of living. And, indeed, quite frequently, I get told that what we learn from experience is not the kind of deep knowledge that we can get through engagement with books and literature and under guidance from a learned person.

But, as I claim, such dichotomy is false and perpetuated to maintain the models of social power, which allows some kind of knowledge to be arbitrarily defined as a higher form of knowledge than others. Indeed, one can engage with culture, as the above suggestion really point to, without having to do it in a form disconnected from life. It is rather engaging with life, rather than withdrawing from it, one can discover a culture - a living-breathing one, rather than something ossified. Learning from experience is not a quick fix - this argument is not to propagate an easy route to learning - and neither it is just restricted to unthinking enterprise. Rather, it is an invitation to think in action, to engage with mind, to create and to challenge the caste system of thinking and work that keep better ideas from emerging.


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