Sunday, October 6, 2013

Knowledge Vs Experience

Which is better?

Today, as I sat mostly idle on a Sunday afternoon, I began to ponder a few things which have irked me for some time. After a while I arrived at the question; "What is knowledge and is it a substitute for experience?"

To give a little back history on the particular irksome thoughts; I use to be quite active with several on-line woodworking sites. As time went on I became less and less involved because of one particular thing - humans make the worst people. Don't laugh, you know it's a fact! We humans, quite simply, are, by far, the absolute best and undeniably the worst people! As sociable and amiable as I tend to be I found it extremely difficult to interact with such a broad range of personalities and keep to the high ground amidst debates.

9 out of 10 times one or more individuals would be spouting erroneous truths and it inevitably would turn into a personal matter with metaphorically sharp objects being hurled from one cyber shop to another. It always made me wonder why and how these strange facts compelled such passions. While I believe the only true answer to that is the Pride of Human Nature that we all are guilty of it still didn't answer the real question of where these silly fictional factoids originated.

I did begin to see a pattern, however. I will not give specific examples because, well, I'm trying harder these days to be a good human. What I began to realize is that all but very few of these myths were in actuality misunderstandings by one of another's words or writings. ie, I read it or saw it on Facebook or maybe Youtube therefore it is... even after I have put my personal spin on it. It all made sense. I have come to the realization that the information age has usurped Experience and replaced it with Knowledge! No longer must a man experience life - he need only read about it or watch it on his 1.21 gigawatt powered 3D flat screen TV! I saw a guy use hand tools - therefore I know how to do it and by George you will listen to me because I am an expert at watching others do things! No, I tell you! You must put your own two hands on a tool and experience it rather than know it. Even when we SEE it done on Youtube by some Cousin Eddy looking knucklehead we miss out on the opportunity to experience that 'ah ha!' moment of "There has got to be a better way, a better technique!"

So to put things in perspective, we can read Moxon & Roubo and attain the knowledge of using or working with tools but not until we are effecting the knowledge with our hands are we experienced. It's quite comical to be told that something is an impossibility or is wrong when you have personal experience of doing these things for many years. Don't you know that Two plus Two is equal to Five!... well THAT is peculiar - I must owe the IRS a lot back income tax!

There are a lot of modern authors or contributors to publications that I feel have taken woodworking to a level of, for lack of a better term, fru-fruness. There is more time spent on clever sentences, wordings and dwelling on their own amazing selves than on content. I believe these works, taken further out of context by mis-understanding readers or viewers is the root of those above false facts. We have taken an art of the working class and transformed it into a romantic novel of the elite intellectual. For some strange reason, we have allowed woodworking history to become as other areas of fine arts so that we now have to be educated and extend our pinkie finger when we drink to understand woodworking. The genra of traditional hand tools is absolutely rampant with this aloof foolery. Take that author's attemp to make the simple sound astounding and then others skew it, be it by poor memory or lack of comprehension, just enough to make it a dangerous half truth.

We have all known that middle-aged man, stumbling for big important sounding words about wine or whisky to seem as the in-crowd when all those around him know he's in idiot. As the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln humorously states: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt." Or the similar but much earlier expression from the book of Proverbs: "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding." In other words don't be a fool - avoid those things which we lack experience of when rendering advise, even if it might make us sound smarter!

If you have continued to read all of this, I'm sure the question in your mind is; "Ok, Jean... Did you have a point to make?" I do, in fact, have a point to this meandering passage and that is simply this; Never take another man's word as a supplement to experience. Knowledge is crucial and if we do not pass down knowledge the future will have no rudder and the past will be forgotten but there is no proxy to experience. If Moxon says to traverse a board then go out and do it before you advise another to do so.

If the experts say "it's like this" then test it - many times the experts didn't and relied solely on the experts before them when they too never tested the theory. Many experts have been wrong - were ideas were not tested aside from written words then the world would still be flat and if we tried to circumnavigate it we would all fall off of the edge and take the hand basket to Hades.



  1. Dude,

    One of the most enjoyable reads I've had in quite a while. These are good words to think about, while counting to ten, prior to injecting myself into a conversation on which I might hold the least of experience.

    It reminds me of another quote I read once, and I'm sure that this is not exact, but something like, " when I was a younger man, I was always amazed at my father's stupidity, and amazed again at how much smarter his words grew as I grew older". My sentence doesn't even deserve quotation marks, it is so far off from the original, but the jest of the theme is there.

    Write more, and more often.


  2. Thank you for the enthusiastic reply, Pete.

    I really didn't intend for this to dissuade anyone from being involved in conversations - even if out of their league! I hope that this was not taken that way. I really more intended it as:

    1) Have knowledge & experience to back your statements / comments / suggestions.

    2) Get out there and live! Don't just read about it or watch it on TV.

    I would never suggest people to stray from discussions on topics they don't know much about as that would undermine their own learning and advancement - just for us, myself included, to be cautious of arguing a procedure we have not performed.

    I host quite a few public speaking events every year and as I tell the apprentices who tag along; "There will be many people here that know more than you and I combined - if you don't know the answer to a question just say that you don't know." There is much less shame in stating "I don't know" than in making things up... You will be called out on it more often than not, and the times that you are not you can be sure that, too many, your credibility is gone.

    On the note of writing more, I will be doing just that. I am closing the doors of my business at the end of the year to pursue more in depth historical research and conservation. So you can expect to see much more here and in the way of publications starting next year!


  3. Hi Jean

    Interesting piece. As I've grown older, I've realised two things. Firstly, the hackneyed comment 'you only learn from your mistakes' gets ever more true, and secondly, 'trust your gut instinct' has rarely got me into trouble either.

    I go with the John Locke school of thought, that to truly accrue knowldge, it can only be gleaned through 'first-hand' sensory perception. Just reading about it in a book never seems to resonate with me!


  4. Excellent Jean!

    So much info at our fingertips is a blessing and a curse. It seems easy as humans to be eager to tell others how we know how others are doing it wrong or to drink up advice without question. Time at the bench and getting good results are time better spent. Thanks for a good article.