Why Knowing Keeps Us Dumb

If we keep doing only what we know how to do, we'll never grow.

Posted Jan 04, 2014

“We live in a mass culture obsessed with the need to know at a time of such instability and unpredictability that knowing is of little good.”

That is from a book I’m currently writing, entitled The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession with Knowing Keeps Us from Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World.

While the topic of human knowledge might seem esoteric, it’s being discussed more widely than ever before, including its practical consequences.

Much of our lives are organized by and through the knowing paradigm, that is, through a model of understanding in which knowing precedes doing and is, indeed, considered necessary in order to do “the right thing.” Amazing discoveries have been made over a few centuries, and yet it’s now questionable whether this way of understanding and moving forward is any longer helping us as individuals, communities, and a species.

For years I’ve been speaking and teaching and practicing an alternative to the knowing paradigm that accesses our human capacity to create environments where we can explore, discover and grow. Along with philosopher and therapist Fred Newman, I wrote a book in 1997 entitled The End of Knowing, which put the issue this way:

Throughout the modern era, a period of explosive growth and technological achievement, knowledge was king and understood to be the engine of human progress. But what if knowing has become an impediment to further human development? The End of Knowing addresses the practical question of how to reconstruct our world in the wake of modernism’s colossal failure to solve social problems. Newman and Holzman propose “the end of knowing,” in favor of “performed activity” and present the positive implications of this approach for social and educational policy.

Newman and I weren’t alone in engaging the practical, world-historic issue of “how to go on.” Over the last two decades there has been a lively intellectual debate over the status of knowledge and the continued viability of the knowing paradigm as the way to interact with and engage the natural and social worlds. Philosophers—especially those immersed in language, science and the foundational of mathematics—ponder how we know what we know (the area of philosophy known as “epistemology.” (They also ponder what there is to know, the area of philosophy known as “ontology”). Social scientists wonder if human life is knowable in the ways that plants and rocks and animals are. Perhaps, they suggest, we humans (and that includes the scientists) have varying “ways of knowing” and “a social epistemology.” Even some hardcore natural scientists believe knowing may be limited and that there are some things about ourselves and the universe that we cannot ever know, no matter how hard we try. These ponderers, and others, are sometimes called postmodernists, futurists, humanists or spiritualists, and other terms I’m not so familiar with. Some directly address how therapy is done, others the field of psychology more broadly, others politics and economics. But all are worried that, from our world leaders to ordinary people, the problem isn’t that we don’t know yet what to do, but that we cannot solve our problems if we persist in believing that the solution lies in knowing.

Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein are quoted so often, I was hesitant at first to repeat their famous sayings. But I decide to, because, for me, they speak directly to the human predicament the knowing paradigm has gotten us into. Two quotes will do to show the muddle we’re in. Commenting on his trade, the great artist Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” And the brilliant theoretical physicist Einstein advised, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Both Picasso and Einstein are pointing to the same trap we’re in—once we know how to do something, we become less willing and able to do new things. We get stuck doing what we know how to do. Imagination reigns supreme when we’re little—when we don’t yet know that we’re supposed to know. We take risks. We learn how to paint, draw, sing, dance, talk, even think, because we “paint” “draw” “sing” “dance” “talk” and even “think” without knowing how! Before we know, we do. We play, we perform, we pretend our way to growth, learning and knowledge. This is the fundamental developmental process of the human species.

To remain an artist as an adult, then, we can’t let all the knowledge we’ve accumulated about art, color, perspective, how things are supposed to look, etc. take over, or suppress our imagination and stop us from doing things with paint and pencil that we’ve never done before. And it’s the same with thinking. By the time we’re adults, most of us know how to think, and for a big portion of our lives, that way works pretty well. But not always. And when it doesn’t, we need to let go of “I know what to do” and generate new ways of thinking about the situation. “I know” only keeps us dumb.

The way out of this predicament, as far as I can tell, is to grow beyond knowing. By that I mean to create environments in which people of all ages can do things without knowing how. These are environments for creativity, play, performance and becoming. These are the types of environments that we create for and with babies and toddlers. These are environments that have at their root a new conception of human development as becoming who we are by performing who we are not. Einstein and Picasso seem to not only have raised the questions that “performing who we are not” answers; it seems that their lives and works embody it.

If you want to read more and follow The Overweight Brain as I write it, please visit loisholzman.org for the latest installment.