Know-That, Know-How and Know-Why: The Unity of Knowledge

By Brian Mooney -

While there are ever new issues in addressing the future of education, there are some dimensions of education that remain perennial. While debates rage over whether a university (or even pre-tertiary) education ought to be liberal or foster growth in a globalised economy perhaps we should step back in order to re-focus on what all education involves.  In a recent book I proposed a tripartite distinction in respect to understanding teaching and learning. 1 I argued that all education involves know-that (knowledge of facts), know-how (skills) and know-why (theoretical understanding).

Much of our preliminary education is concerned with know-that insofar as we require a body of established facts and truths in order to master a domain of knowledge. A student must know that the materials required to paint include brushes, pencils, canvas, colours, etc., before she can proceed to learn how-to paint.  Similarly a mechanic needs to know that the cars that she works on operate with certain parts and that certain tools are to be used for this task, others for that task. On the whole I believe our education systems worldwide have done a good job at this level. However, there is one area in the know-that domain which has received less attention—a fundamental requirement of a genuine appreciation of facts and truths involves experience and even imaginative participation.  Who else but a lover could say that ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?’, and only when we have loved do we understand the point the lover makes.

The experiential dimension of teaching learning and understanding naturally finds its place also in know-how. Somewhat surprisingly, in the context of the classroom and formal teaching, our common-sense understanding of how we, as individual learners, come to learn how to do things is often neglected. Take for example learning how to swim. We learn to swim by swimming, just as we learn to ride a bike by riding one, and learn to speak a language by speaking it. Much of the art in teaching these forms of know-how comes in selecting and structuring those experiences that occasion the development of the desired skills. For instance, a swimming teacher encourages students not only to get into the water, but also to practice (and thereby learn) certain elements of swimming before others. We typically learn how to kick before how to do arm strokes. The swimming teacher has the student practice all of the necessary elements in sequence, until the student is able to experience, from the inside, what it feels like to be engaged in successful practice. Finally, the student leaves the shallow end of the pool and reproduces all of these elements, and the result is swimming. Skilled swimming would then involve consolidated know-how. Excellent swimmers, who are very skilled at swimming, practice more, and more often, than those who are less skilled.

But it is common for teachers, who know at the personal level what is required for learning know-how, to forget these experiential insights when they enter the classroom. Know-how can only be acquired through experience, but instead students are frequently addressed using pedagogical methods better suited to the imparting of facts, that is, know-that. It is as if we asked our students to read a swimming textbook, have them pass a multiple-choice exam, and then expect them to be swimmers.

Moreover, the successful appropriation of know-how is often, perhaps always, dependent on forms of know-that. Know-how and know-that interpenetrate. I may know how to drive a car, having learnt how to do so in Ireland, but if I do not know that it would be extremely dangerous to drive on the left-hand-side of the road in the USA then my know-how is seriously impaired. Know-how thus seems to require know-that.

The linkages between know-how and know-that imply considerations as to the appropriateness of pedagogical practice. They also imply regulatory, policy and assessment considerations in an institutional context in relation to educators and the efficacy of practice. If we want to educate our students properly in respect to know-that and know-how we need to give careful attention to the level of general awareness of such considerations; what skills/capacities need to exist in educators to teach effectively; what are the assessment, moderation and monitoring concerns institutionally to understand the effectiveness of teaching and learning—how does this play out into individual and institutional development.  But these considerations then lead us into questions about know-why.

There is good reason to think that both know-how and know-that are hierarchically related to know-why. It is when we talk of know-why that we most easily talk of genuine understanding. Such understanding moves well beyond knowing-how or knowing-that. Know-why is concerned with uncovering causes, ends, and goals; with identifying that for the sake of which something is done, undertaken or pursued, or holds true. And here is the key focus of my meditation: our various fields of study and inquiry illuminate each other and it seems to me that this is what is in danger of being lost or at least forgotten in contemporary education.

The desire to know-why, as Aristotle intimates, is a fundamental dimension of the human condition—as evidenced by our sense of wonder and our attempts to formulate and reformulate questions and answers that open and deepen our understanding. 2 We are naturally curious. Even as infants, the desire to understand and experience the world around us is exhibited in sensuous corporeal gropings, putting anything to hand into one’s mouth. Know-why responds to an aspect of our being. Or, to say the same thing in different words, human beings are naturally inclined towards knowing and find their fulfilment at least partially constituted by coming to know why things are as they are. By reflecting on this fundamental orientation of our nature as encountered in our social settings, we can collaboratively extend our questioning to everything in our collective range of experience that can be experienced as questionable. Knowing-why (as understanding) also comes in degrees, not just in respect to the marvellous diaphaneity of the objects and branches of knowledge, but also in respect to their appropriation by given temperaments and persons. Not everyone can be a Plato or an Aristotle, but everyone seeks meaning and understanding, and is hence a metaphysician.

The answers to our questions and how we understand these answers are themselves expressions of a deeper attachment to getting things right, in a word, to truth. The very possibility of sustained sociability, of understanding and being understood, implies a tacit commitment to truth and therefore to the standards and appropriate methods by which we can reasonably attain truth. 3 Indeed, we adapt our methods of seeking truth in response to the sort of truth we are trying to obtain. For instance, if we are confused by the meaning of a word, we might consult a dictionary, but if we are curious about the features of the moon we have recourse to a telescope.

Commitment to truth entails existential commitments on the parts of both teachers and learners to veracity as a virtue, enabling meanings to be reliably drawn from discourse with others and also to the canons of reasonable argumentation. These specific canons may be demanded by the rules that govern the conditions of our being. Our curiosity would be undirected, and hence unsatisfied, without commitment to ontological and logical principles such as the principle of non-contradiction. This is a logical principle because the conjunction ‘p & not-p’ is always false. This logical principle, however, reflects the ontological commonplace that the same thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect: Fionnuala cannot both be and not be a human being at the same time; she either is human or not.

Moreover, know-why as it is directed towards truth requires that our education systems need to prioritize inquiry into ethics, and more broadly into ethical futures and a sustainable world.  Know-why is likely to provide us with the requisite ways in which humanity might progress.

Know-why needs to be privileged in our curricula because there is an abiding relation and deep connection between the activity of questioning and the selves that question. Questioning is how humans manifest their natural wonder, and the most satisfying answers to the best questions are inevitably concerned with know-why. The self that questions is defined (at least partially) by the questions asked and the sorts of answers arrived at. This is why education in its broadest sense, involves self-making or self-realization. To draw out the powers of the student is to help the student be more than what he or she was before, that is, successful education entails self-transcendence. All of the relations captured by know-that, know-how and know-why are transformed in the activities associated with education: teacher, student, and appropriated understanding are altered as teaching and learning illuminate their subjects.

Brian Mooney is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. Originally from the North of Ireland, he completed his PhD in 1993 on the ‘Philosophy of Love and Friendship’ and since then has taught at a number of institutions including University of Ghana, Melbourne University, Deakin University, Swinburne University, Edith Cowan University and the University of Notre Dame Australia. His major research interests are in Moral Philosophy, Political Philosophy and Ancient Philosophy. Professor Mooney has recently published Understanding Teaching and Learning (St Andrew’s Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs), and Aquinas, Education and the East (Springer) is forthcoming.

  1. T. Brian Mooney and Mark Nowacki, Understanding Teaching and Learning, St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2011.
  2. See Aristotle’s opening sentence of the Metaphysics.
  3. MacIntyre has argued that a commitment to truth is a necessary condition of sociability on numerous occasions. See for example A. MacIntyre, The Tasks of Philosophy, vol. 1, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, essays 3, 8, 9, and 10.



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