On ways of knowing

To grow and develop in life and at work, we learn new things and improve our knowledge. But what does it mean to truly know something?

When we think about it, the people we see as traditionally knowledgeable aren’t always the ones who seem most successful. Similarly, gaining knowledge doesn’t automatically free us when stuck on a problem. That’s because, as cognitive scientist John Vervaeke points out, we tend to define knowing too narrowly.

He proposes 4 ways of knowing:

  • Propositional knowing—the type we’re most familiar with and usually think of as knowledge; knowing about things, facts, and concepts that lead to beliefs
  • Procedural knowing—knowing how to do something, which results in skills
  • Perspectival knowing—knowing how to perceive the world and see things from different points of view, leading to perspectives
  • Participatory knowing—knowing how to relate to the world, this results in influencing and being influenced by the environment

With the Formula 1 season about to start, let's consider each of these in the context of F1 racing. It also makes for a simple example to understand the differences between these ways of knowing.

It's possible for a diehard Formula 1 fan to know more facts about the sport and the cars—from aerodynamics to gearboxes and engines—than any of the drivers. While they may have more propositional knowledge than the experts, it's obvious that we wouldn't consider them the most knowledgeable overall.

That’s because most fans have never actually driven a Formula 1 car. The drivers know the detailed procedures of how to get into a car, how to start it, and how to operate it at high speeds. They possess skills that almost everyone else lacks.

But that’s not the only additional kind of knowing they embody. Formula 1 drivers can understand complex situations and determine which skills are appropriate for what situation. They know when the balance of the car feels right or wrong and can adjust accordingly. The best drivers, like Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, are probably even able to understand how other drivers might behave in the same situation. Having this perspectival awareness gives them an edge.

Finally, F1 drivers sometimes describe feeling “at one with the machine.” Many athletes describe it as being “in the zone” or the “flow” state. Everything else seems to disappear and drivers can sometimes feel like the car is driving them as much as they are driving the car. They’re no longer consciously or rationally making every decision, and they just know when to push it to the limit and when to take it a bit easier.

These 4 ways of knowing are not just relevant in the realm of extreme sports though. They relate to our everyday lives. Learning isn’t just about accumulating facts or skills. Developing the ability to perceive the world as it is and see different perspectives allows us to understand things more deeply. We can then engage with the world based on this deeper understanding.