Friday, May 9, 2014

Michael Oakeshott: Two kinds of knowledge.

Procedures: Loved by the worst, and hated by the best  - Unknown
Michael Oakeshott in his otherwise disappointing essay "Rationalism in Politics" suggests two kinds of knowledge are necessary for all human activities.

The first is technical knowledge whose "chief characteristic is that it is susceptible of precise formulation". Technical knowledge is a set of rules or principles or procedures which can be formulated in written form and represents the starting point for most students learning a new discipline whether artistic or scientific in nature.

The second is practical knowledge because "it exists only in use, is not reflective and cannot be formulated in rules". Practical knowledge cannot be taught through a book or in a lecture or captured in a precise set of procedures. The only sure means of acquiring such knowledge is through personal experience and mastery of any task is impossible without such practical knowledge.

Technical and practical knowledge are distinguishable in theory but inseparable in reality. Oakeshott claims rationalists embrace technical knowledge while dismissing the practical as irrelevant and so grasp only part of the whole. But I wish to break away from his essay and ruminate a little.

Those who refuse to read instructions or to ask for directions are stereotypical examples of people who reject technical knowledge in favor of the practical either through laziness or an arrogant overestimation in their own ability to complete a task without 'book learning'. Sometimes this is due to the mistaken romanticized notion that technical instruction suppresses individual creativity; that a gifted individual can develop a superior solution when not weighted down by past solutions. I fall into this category myself. My work is much like cycling along a railway line: I'll reach my destination but I'll feel every bump along the way. But, infuriating as we are, we become charmingly quirky when compared to those who prefer technical knowledge over the practical.

I do not have in mind an academic or even a bureaucrat, but someone more mundane: the by-the-book stickler.  A stickler only considers the process worthwhile because to their mind a process correctly followed must inevitably lead to the expected outcome and the correct response to most failures is more processes. The stickler wants to homogenise through the drudgery of method; it does not occur that different people work best in different ways. Their single greatest flaw is that identified by Oakeshott: ignoring the practical because it cannot the formulated into a process.

I have worked with many sticklers over the years and their inability to apply common sense to a problem makes them far more infuriating than those of us too lazy to read instructions. When you find yourself following processes whose purpose it is to ensure you followed other processes, you are probably working for a stickler.