A recent argument with my friend over "Presentation vs Substance" was about whether the presentation of a subject (e.g. in a talk) is more important than the actual content which is being delivered. From there we boiled down to the question asking the fundamental nature of any piece of knowledge. One side of the debate was "If a knowledge cannot be used; it loses its property of being knowledge in a fundamental way". The other side of the debate was "A knowledge, by the virtue of its mere existence, is still a knowledge regardless of the fact if it is used or not".

Which side of the question seems more correct?

P.S. Sorry if my wording was a bit vague for this SE. This is my first question here, and I apologize in advance if this is not an appropriate place/format for these types of questions.

  • We had another thought experiment: I have two books - one with random squiggles in it for the text, another is with some meaningful text (it contains applicable physical theories if that helps). The catch is, the second book cannot be opened. Now the question is, can these two books be compared? Can we safely say that these books are identical in nature, as far as their knowledge content (or lack thereof) is concerned? Jan 29, 2020 at 7:56
  • 1
    "Traditional approaches to knowledge have it that knowledge has to do with factors like truth and justification... In recent years, some epistemologists have argued that focus on such truth-relevant factors leaves something important out of our picture of knowledge. In particular, they have argued that distinctively pragmatic factors are relevant to whether a subject has knowledge... Pragmatic encroachment on knowledge is deeply controversial", SEP, Analysis of Knowladge: Pragmatic Encroachment.
    – Conifold
    Jan 29, 2020 at 8:56
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    Are you able to imagine an item of knowledge that cannot in principle be used? Even in a quiz show?
    – user20253
    Jan 29, 2020 at 11:09

2 Answers 2


There's a grammar issue here that's confusing the issue. the question of whether knowledge can or cannot be used makes it appear as though usefulness/usability are properties of particular knowledge objects, rather than a function of human interaction with knowledge. I mean, does a rock have use in and of itself? I'd say no, but then again, if I needed to pound a nail and I've lost my hammer, a rock can be used just fine for that purpose. My relation to the rock changes to make the rock useful.

Whether any knowledge object has 'use' in and of itself is debatable. I mean, I 'know' Newton's Laws, but I cannot remember the last time that I 'used' them for any particular purpose. I could use them if I needed to, but... On the other end of the spectrum, I 'know' the theme to Gilligan's Island, and I sometimes 'use' that knowledge to amuse myself and irritate my friends.

Honestly, this question trips over Wittgenstein's 'Language Game #2,' where he demonstrates that knowledge of something is a codification of use that allows cooperative action. Thus if two people are trying to build a wall, they have to find some way of asking for and receiving various needed objects: bricks, mortar, trowels, etc. Thus, knowledge of a 'brick' is not merely tied to an object, but to a class of objects that are used in a particular way within a particular context. Objects that have no use whatsoever never enter into language and so can never constitute knowledge. I mean, image if I said to you: "Well, that's pretty much a blort in a knermil". Unless I explain to you what a 'blort' and a 'knermil' are, and what the relationship between them is, that statement is meaningless. It can be applied to anything, and nothing, and thus cannot be said to express 'knowledge.' Once I explain those terms (assuming I can do so credibly) then we have knowledge, because we can use that phrase meaningfully.


Amogh Kulkarni, & welcome to PSE.

  1. Usabiliity is not intrinsic or definitional to the concept of knowledge. 'X is an item of knowledge but X has no conceivable use' is not a contradiction. So, logically at least, "If a knowledge cannot be used; it loses its property of being knowledge in a fundamental way" is false. A pragmatist would disagree but pragmatism relies on a theory of truth which is generally regarded as problematic.

  2. The truth of "A knowledge, by the virtue of its mere existence, is still a knowledge regardless of the fact if it is used or not" follows from 1. If there is an item of knowledge, X - if an item of knowledge exists, as you would put it - then since usability is not intrinsic or definitional to the concept of knowledge, X is knowledge regardless of whether it can be used.

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