Socrates on Explicit Knowledge

Here’s a reprise from the archives – Socrates on the limitations of the written word.

SocratesSocrates, as reported by Plato in The Phaedrus, was not a fan of explicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge, in those days, meant Writing, and Socrates never wrote anything down – he had a scribe (Plato) to do that for him. He mistrusted writing – he felt it made people stupid and lazy by giving them the impression that they were recording (and reading) real knowledge.

Here’s Socrates

“He would be a very simple person…who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters….. Writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence….

You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer…..Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this? … I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent”.

In the form of a fable, he says this about writing as a means of transmitting knowledge

“The specific which you have discovered (writing) is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing”

In Summary, Explicit Knowledge, for Socrates, is poor because it cannot be questioned, gives always the same answer, and is the “semblance of truth”. Far preferable is Tacit knowledge (“an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner”) which can be questioned.

Socrates (as befits one of the world’s leading philosophers) had a good point.

How then can we reduce these real risks when it comes to transferring knowledge? We have four options.

  1. For the most important knowledge, aim to Connect people rather than relying on Collecting the written word. Use Peer Assist and Communities of Practice, rather than relying solely on knowledge bases.
  2. When you do record explicit knowledge, ensure that the details of the author are attached to the knowledge, so that the reader can find the writer and question them directly. In this way the explicit record becomes a pointer to tacit knowledge, and a reminder (Socrates’ “reminiscence”) to the author. 
  3. Use explicit knowledge for those topics which require “one unvarying answer”, such as best practice, “rules of the road”, instructions, manuals and policies, bearing in mind that the answer may evolve over time, and that the written word must evolve similarly.
  4. When you record explicit knowledge (as text or video), bear in mind all the questions the reader/viewer is likely to have, and answer them. The FAQ format is a better format than dry prose or instruction, as it is reader-focused and question-focused.
I think Socrates would endorse 1, 2 and 3, and perhaps be less happy with 4.

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