Home » What does it mean to know?

“I know.” “I don’t know.” We say these two sentences all the time. But do we know what they mean? Do we know what it means, “to know”? For many persons, content as they are not to ask meaningful questions, there seems no need of an answer. But for anyone who wishes to have confidence in the coherence of life, it seems an essential question to ask. We cannot, after all, claim confidently to know anything if we do not know what it is to know.

John Vervaeke’s “Cognition”

But is it truly a great secret—an ineffable mystery? To hear some thinkers of the 21st century tell it, nobody truly had a good answer for what we mean by “knowledge”—or all its many associated terms—until recently. Some might claim we still have no good answer. One of the recent claimants to the answer is John Vervaeke, professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Toronto. To put Vervaeke’s theory in summation (which one can find more thoroughly-presented in this link), knowing is one form of cognition, which stands in contrast to functional information processing. The latter, in essence, comprises the neurological operations of the brain and all our sensory apparatus. “Knowing”, on the other hand, consists in four types:

Watkins on Vervaeke’s Four 4’s of Knowledge.
  1. Propositional knowing. What ordinarily we signify by “knowledge”: the ability to form propositions which state what other things are, as , “That is a maple tree.”
  2. Procedural knowing. What we might also call “know-how”: a kind of embodied grasp of how to perform a certain function. I “know how” to type; my fingers move across the keyboard without having to explicitly think through which finger goes where.
  3. Perspectival knowing. This is the kind of knowing that understands the situation or environment in which one is placed. It is a general awareness of the objects constituting one’s surroundings.
  4. Participatory knowing. In short, “being comfortable in an environment”. This is described as being in a “state of flow”. Someone who gets on line at a bank, for instance, without having to deliberate or analyze the situation.

Connecting these two forms of cognition is Vervaeke’s theory of “recursive relevance realization”. Another way of saying this would be that, through our functional information processing, we form feedback loops that recursively inform us of the fittingness of what we “know”.

Thomism and Semiotics on Cognition

But is Vervaeke either saying anything truly new, or, for that matter, true? I would argue that nothing correct in the distinctions he provides has not been said by others, and, more poignantly, that the foundations of his approach (obscured behind the dazzling array of traditions and figures throughout history from whom he scrapes), are quite unstable. Indeed, Vervaeke has produced only a superficial mosaic behind which there stands no depth.

By contrast, as we will discuss tonight, the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of cognition, which locates operations in faculties, belonging to the soul, and therefore provides an essential (rather than merely contextual) unity for our cognitive acts, produces a much richer theory of cognition. Correlatively (as Thomism was itself developing in this direction as late as the 17th century), semiotics provides a better explanation of how we interact with our environments. Together, the two schools of thought provide a more coherent picture not only of our cognitive lives but also of our place within the whole universe.

For central to the Semiotic-Thomistic approach is the reality of relation. We hope you’ll join us to talk through this great topic tonight in our casual online environment! Links below (if you join live, we only ask that you use a real name).

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

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