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Propositional knowledge

Propositional knowledge or declarative knowledge is knowledge that some proposition is either true or false. This distinguishes propositional knowledge from know-how or procedural knowledge, which is the knowledge of how to perform some task. This article discusses propositional knowledge from a variety of perspectives, including philosophy, science, and history.

What is the difference between knowledge and beliefs? A belief is an internal thought or memory which exists in one's mind. Most people accept that for a belief to be knowledge it must be, at least, true and justified. The Gettier problem in philosophy is the question of whether there are any other requirements before a belief can be accepted as knowledge.

The article Knowledge (philosophy) discusses the view of philosophers on how one can tell which beliefs constitute actual knowledge.

Table of contents
1 Acquiring knowledge
2 Types of knowledge
3 Knowledge in various disciplines
4 Situated knowledge
5 Issues
6 Non-scientific methods
7 Practical limits for obtaining knowledge

Acquiring knowledge

People have used many methods to try and gain knowledge.

  1. By reason and logic.
  2. By mathemathical proof
  3. By the scientific method.
  4. By the trial and error method.
  5. By applying an algorithm
  6. By learning from experience.
  7. By an argument from authority, which could be from religious, literary, political, philosophical or scientific authorities.
  8. By listening to the testimony of witnesses.
  9. By observing the world in its "natural state"; seeing how the world operates without performing any experiments.
  10. By acquiring knowledge that is embedded in one's language, culture, or traditions.
  11. By having a divine illumination or revelation from a divine agency.
  12. By some claimed form of enlightenment following a period of meditation. (For example, the Hindu enlightenment known as Bodhi.)

Types of knowledge

Knowledge can be classified into a priori knowledge, which is obtained without needing to observe the world, and a posteriori or empirical knowledge, which is only obtained after observing the world or interacting with it in some way. See a priori and a posteriori knowledge for more.

Often knowledge is gained by combining or extending other knowledge in various ways. Isaac Newton famously wrote: "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".

Inferential knowledge is based on reasoning from facts or from other inferential knowledge such as a theory. Such knowledge may or may not be verifiable by observation or testing. For example, all knowledge of the atom is inferential knowledge. The distinction between factual knowledge and inferential knowledge has been explored by the discipline of general semantics.

Knowledge in various disciplines

There are many different disciplines that generate beliefs that can be regarded as knowledge. They include science (which generates scientific theories), law (which generates verdicts), history (which generates history), and maths (which generates proofs).

Knowledge in science and engineering

Scientists attempt to gain knowledge through the scientific method. In this method, scientists start by finding a phenomenon of interest, which generates questions. A scientist then picks a question of interest, and based on previous knowledge, develops a hypothesis. The scientist then designs a controlled experiment which will allow her to test the hypothesis against the real world. She then makes predictions about the outcome of the test, based on the hypothesis.

At this point the scientist carries out the experiment, and compares her predictions with her observations. Assuming that there were no flaws in the experiment, then if they match, then this is evidence in favour of the hypothesis. If they do not match, then the hypothesis has been falsified. The next steps are peer review and publication, through which the results are distributed to other scientists.

A hypothesis that have been shown to accurately and reliably predict and characterize some physical phenomenon, and had been sufficiently peer-reviewed and tested, may become a scientific theory. Scientific theories are widely regarded as knowledge, though they are always subject to further revision or review should new data come to light.

To use scientific theories, they must be applied to the specific situation in hand. For example, a civil engineer might use the theory of statics (a branch of physics) to determine whether or not a bridge will hold up. This is one case where new knowledge is generated from scientific knowledge by specialising it to an individual instance.

Knowledge in history

The scientific method does not apply to history (or related disciplines, such as archeology), because it is not possible to construct experiments to test theories. Suppose a historian believes that Napoleon would have won the Battle of Waterloo if Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher had arrived an hour later. The historian cannot simply re-run the battle and see what would happen with different starting conditions.

Historians often generate different interpretations of the same event, even when reading the same primary sources, and these interpretations are always subject to revision by other historians.

Situated knowledge

Knowledge gained in one situation cannot always be relied on in another situation. Imagine two very similar breeds of mushroom, which grow on either side of a mountain, one nutritious, one poisonous. Relying on knowledge from one side of an ecological boundary, after crossing to the other, may lead to starving rather than eating perfectly healthy food near at hand, or to poisoning oneself by mistake.

Some methods of generating knowledge, such as trial and error, or learning from experience, tend to create highly situational knowledge. One of the main benefits of the scientific method is that the theories it generates are much less situational than knowledge gained by other methods.

Situational knowledge is often embedded in language, culture, or traditions. Critics of cultural imperialism argue that the rise of a global monoculture causes a loss of local knowledge.


What constitutes knowledge, certainty and truth are controversial issues. These issues are debated by philosophers, social scientists, and historians. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote "On Certainty" - aphorisms on these concepts - exploring relationships between knowledge and certainty. A thread of his concern has become an entire field, the philosophy of action.

There are a number of problems that arise when defining knowledge or truth, including issues with objectivity, adequacy and limits to justification. Beliefs are also very problematic not least because they are either true or false, and therefore cannot be adequately described by conventional logic. An action likewise can be taken or not, but there is the troubling idea of an "event" is, an action taken by nobody, or nobody who you can blame.

Non-scientific methods

Some people hold that science does not actually tell us about the physical world that they live. They hold that the world cannot be understood by science, but rather by religious revelations, mystical experience, or literary deconstructionism.

Practical limits for obtaining knowledge

What we hold to be knowledge is often derived by a combination of reason from either traditional, authoritative, or scientific sources. Many times such knowledge is not verifiable; sometimes the process of testing is prohibitively dangerous or expensive. For instance, some physics theories about the nature of the universe, such as string-theory, requite the construction of testing equipment currently beyond our technology. Since such theories are in principle subject to verification or refutation, they are scientific; since they are not proven experimentally, they are not considered certain knowledge. Rather, in such cases we have certain knowledge only of the theory, but not of what the theory describes.

"Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things - authority, reasoning, and experience - only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect." (Roger Bacon, English alchemist and philosopher)

See also: Epistemology -- Truth -- Wisdom -- Understanding

Semi-related topics: Data -- Information -- Knowledge creation -- Knowledge Management -- Knowledge transfer -- Instructional capital -- Tacit knowledge